A commoner’s critique: The NREGA

The following is a guest post by Kisholoy Mukherjee.

The NREGA or the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is hailed as the brain child of the INC and has attracted quite a lot of attention. Most people, whether they are in the media or the Congress and even the common man have made very positive remarks about this scheme and have pointed out how this scheme can change the poor conditions that prevail still today in rural areas. (Of course opposition parties have tried to paint this ACT in black but that is purely out of a political motive) Hard to believe that those of us who are already far better off and are living in absolute luxury compared to the rural poor, can actually consider such modest steps as big ones and can find so many positives in such measures which bring about almost insignificant changes in life at the grass root level or none at all for many.  And if you confront them, living in the comfort of proper houses and many of them enjoying luxuries the poor can only dream of, they have a long known defense – the country does not have enough money. Yeah, right.

I am going to write about how I feel after going through different Acts of India, mainly those which can have or are said will have a significant impact on people’s lives. I am starting the series with NREGA. Throughout this critique, I will either place you in the shoes of the villager or that of the official responsible for carrying out the provisions of this act.

The ACT basically says that 100 days of employment will be guaranteed* to every rural household every financial year, whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. * Well, conditions apply!!

Indeed, like in the constitution itself, where provisions for applying conditions to things like “no demarcation based on caste, religion etc” actually makes a mockery of the very principle because of which the section was written at first, this act among others does the same thing – it kills the very purpose of the scheme. If there are provisions for not providing even those 100 days of work, what is the point of mentioning in the title it is a “guarantee scheme”??

So, let’s look at it bit by bit…

1. What is the wage that will be paid? It can be decided by the State Govt. or it can be given according to the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. The minimum wage that has decided upon recently  is around Rs. 100 per day (for a six to seven hour labor) by the ministry of Labor and Employment.



However, in the NREGA, there is a way out of this – in section 6, Chapter 3, it is mentioned that the wage decided by the state govts. “shall not be at a rate less than sixty rupees per day.” There you go…so , as a state govt, either you follow the Minimum wages Act (by which according to present standards Rs.100 is the minimum) or you set your own standards which can be as low as Rs.60. Needless to say, it leaves the room open for corruption and misuse of the funds for the project.

2. It is mentioned in sub-section 3, of section 3 of Chapter 2, that  “the disbursement of daily wages shall be made on a weekly basis or in any case not later than a fortnight after the date on which such work was done.” That is funny…they are speaking of treating the daily wage workers as if they are on a payroll and are going to get month-end salaries!! This smacks of insensitivity – do they have any idea that a poor household will need that modest amount of money desperately every day, or else they would have to take loans? Such poor people naturally don’t have savings. Instead, they always have debts way more than their earnings. Why make such a provision for paying a wage not on daily basis?? It is a serious mistake….deliberate or not….

3. Section 7, Chapter 3 perhaps has the most gaping hole, as big as a crater, in the ACT – It lays down the provisions (huh, again!!) for NOT giving the employment. How and when can the poor villager, desperately in need of some money, perhaps to buy some medicines for himself or for his little child or his wife, or to simply feed his starving family, be shooed away?? Well, here are the guidelines that corrupt officials have been given to misuse the scheme’s fund’s money:

You can keep turning them back for 15 days. And even after that, if the poor soul keeps coming back to irritate you for a job, you will then assure him of “an unemployment allowance”. What is that? You may pay as low as  1/4th of the minimum wage that can be paid to him in a day …that comes down to Rs. 15 a day, for the first 30 days (it is not clarified if these 30 days include the initial 15 days or not!!) And on top of that, do not forget that you can also choose NOT TO PAY the wage for each day for up to a fortnight. The official only has to cite special reasons like “economic incapacity” for not giving the employment (i.e. not giving the bare minimum of 60 rupees even). How do you expect a poor villager to challenge him??

Believe it or not, There is no mechanism for appealing either. Something that at least the RTI has. Perhaps the ministers had realized that would be a waste of writing space anyway since poor villagers will naturally be rendered helpless if they are refused, even if they had a chance for appealing.

But this was only about the first 30 days: there is a provision for not giving an unemployment for a whole 1 year!! And during the period after the first 30 days of unemployment, the villager is entitled to get no less than one-half of the wage rate…i.e Rs.30/day.

And what happens if he does not get a job at all, even after one full year and after having to do with such a small  compensation?? Well, there is nothing written about it. And with no provision for appealing, it takes only a child’s guess…

And on top of that, even the unemployment allowance can be skipped on the following conditions and I am quoting directly from the ACT:

(b) the period for which employment is sought comes to an end and no member of the household of the applicant had turned up for employment; or (c) the adult members of the household of the applicant have received in total at least one hundred days of work within the financial year; or (d) the household of the applicant has earned as much from the wages and unemployment allowance taken together which is equal to the wages for one hundred days of work during the financial year.

I leave it to you all to decide what you make of that, since the absurdity of it all is just too self-evident.

Some more ways to avoid giving the villager the unemployment allowance:

-An applicant who- (a) does not accept the employment provided to his household under a Scheme; or (b) does not report for work within fifteen days of being notified by the Programme Officer or the implementing agency to report for the work; or (c) continuously remains absent from work, without obtaining a permission from the concerned implementing agency for a period of more than one week or remains absent for a total period of more than one week in any month, shall not be eligible to claim the unemployment allowance payable under this Act for a period of three months but shall be eligible to seek employment under the Scheme at any time.

So, basically:

a) say you are the jobless or landless farmer/poor villager and you have some kind of disability, which you can definitely have given you are so poor and the nature of your job, you cannot even ask for an alternative job if its physically too hard or impossible for you (at least there is no provision for such a “generous” act on part of the official, and I think we would be asking too much of them to show kindness even beyond the most generous ones already present in the ACT)

b) they can pay you as late as upto fourteen days, but still you have to be law-abiding….after all, Mogambo ko khush karna jo hain

c) If you are for some reason absent for the said number of days, say due to some illness, then you will not be eligible for the unemployment allowance for a period of 3 months. If your absence “for a total period of more than one week in any month”. So, that even includes 8 days. This one has serious implications:

1. You can lose your job suddenly! (since they are talking about unemployment allowance and remaining absent at the same time, clearly, an ambiguity there, perhaps deliberately)

2. And when you do, you will not get the unemployment allowance upto 3 months if you were somehow unable to attend the arduous labor even for 8 days in a month.

3. There is nothing mentioned about why you may lose the job…

Why were such gaping holes left unplugged?? Were they intentionally left? Clearly, the seeds of corruption were all laid even as the bill was being formulated, as is evident from the sheer absurdity of the ACT’s provisions…

But there is more to come:

The Panchayats will be in charge of implementing the rules of this ACT. Needless to say, even though the panchayats may have more favor with the locals of a village, they can often be highly corrupt. So, a whole new commission should have been set up independently, like the Information Commission in connection with the RTI act.

All that is mentioned in connection with grievance addressing is this (section 19, Chapter 3):

The State Government shall, by rules, determine appropriate grievance redressal mechanisms at the Block level and the district level for dealing with any complaint by any person in respect of implementation of the Scheme and lay down the procedure for disposal of such complaints.

Needless to say, it is extremely wishy-washy and vague.

All that is written under the transparency and accountability section of the act, is again very unclear and only touches upon how the complex internal mechanisms of complaint transfers will be (from the Gram Panchayat to the Programme officer etc.) like but does not mention clearly the position of the complainant in all of this.

As a penalty, a maximum of only Rs.1000 will be given to anyone who contravenes the provisions of this act.

A few sections about which I am as yet undecided as to how positively effective or adequate they will be:

….priority shall be given to women in such a way that at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women who have registered and requested for work under this Act.

24. If any personal injury is caused to any person employed under the Scheme by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment, he shall be entitled to, free of charge, such medical treatment as is admissible under the Scheme. (???)

Where hospitalisation of the injured worker is necessary, the State Government shall arrange for such hospitalisation including accommodation, treatment, medicines and payment of daily allowance not less than half of the wage rate required to be paid had the injured been engaged in the work.

A few suggestions on how to improve upon this act:

use the same officials under this scheme to make a payment of Rs.100/day 365 days a year (or better still, food and clothing worth Rs.100) without fail to every household as a start without work, and then on top of that make arrangements to provide 100 days of work similarly as provided by this scheme. However, an appeal mechanism is a must.And that mechanism should be made as transparent as possible and not the eyewash type as is presently provided by this act.

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