NREGA, today celebrating its 10th anniversary, has received a hostile reception from the current political dispensation. The Rajasthan Chief Minister questioning the need for a law, the then Rural Development minister's suggestion to limit NREGA to a few districts, and the Prime Minister's speech in Parliament in 2015 reveal the BJP's hostility and double standards (NREGA was passed unanimously in 2005).
Yet, it would be wrong to lay the entire blame on this government. The perceived "success" of NREGA in UPA-1 became a burden under UPA-2. Instead of consolidating on the basics (work on demand, timely payments, better assets, participatory planning), other objectives were foisted on NREGA - convergence, sanitation, self-help groups, unionizing labour, political packaging through construction of "Rajiv Gandhi" bhawans.
From the start in 2005, NREGA embraced technology. NREGASoft, a management information system (MIS), was specially designed. It has its flaws but greatly facilitated implementation and brought unprecedented transparency to the programme. Similarly, around 2008-9, it was ordered that NREGA wages be paid only through bank and post office accounts (instead of cash in hand) to curb corruption.
Come UPA-2, NREGA went from being technology-friendly to being technocracy-servient. The corruption discourse was so dominant that before the impact of wage payment through bank accounts could be evaluated, electronic muster rolls (EMRs) - attendance sheets - were introduced. The names of those who applied for work were to be entered in NREGASoft, to generate these EMRs or attendance sheets with pre-printed names. The rationale for EMRs was that when labourers demanded work, they could have a dated receipt as proof to claim their unemployment allowance (as per the Act if work is not provided within 15 days). Further, EMRs were meant to check corruption. It was felt that with paper MRs, names of workers who never came to the worksite ("fake names") were being entered, and EMRs or electronic attendance sheets could put an end to this malpractice.
In practice, EMRs have solved neither of the two problems. In many areas, work is provided to those who show up at the worksite, and their attendance is maintained in a kachha register. This register is used to generate post-dated work demand and EMRs. The tear-off receipt in the work demand form remains with NREGA functionaries. This means workers do not have proof to demand unemployment allowance if work is not provided. As far as "fake names" are concerned, EMRs allow that sort of corruption to continue. Fake labourers can bully or collude with NREGA functionaries to register them.
In a nutshell, except in small pockets, EMRs have been damaging: they have undermined the right to demand work at the worksite, added extra layers of paperwork (the kachha records and the work demand forms), and in some places brought back middlemen (because workers don't know where and how to apply).
The technocratic approach has been accompanied by over-centralization. Around 2014-15, the ministry issued over 1,000 circulars related to the MIS. Instead of each state having an NREGA fund to allocate, the Electronic Fund Management System (EFMS) has centralized the flow of funds. In West Bengal, an exasperated Block Development Officer told us that it took him eight hours to process one payment through the EFMS. State funds are up (in the "cloud") for grabs on a first-come-first-serve basis. As soon as NREGA staff hear that funds are available, they all start processing pending payments. Those with better internet connectivity (and luck!) manage successfully, those in remoter areas are left hanging. The trauma was similar to that which one experiences booking a tatkal train ticket, where after one has made the payment, the transaction can still fail at the last step.
Worse, before one set of changes could take root, another change would be brought in. One official said "Before we had read the previous one, a new circular would arrive". For instance, before EFMS related issues were resolved, the Public Fund Management System (PFMS) has been introduced (in Karnataka, 38,000 payments are crippled due to PMFS). NREGA functionaries have yet to learn what "PMFS" stands for and "Ne-FMS" is in the wings.
The alleged benefits of aadhaar and biometric authentication at the time of withdrawing NREGA wages have long been debunked. With wages being paid into bank accounts, wage corruption is only possible by coercing or colluding with labourers. Coercion means that once the labourer has withdrawn her wages, money is forcefully taken away. Collusion means that the labourer himself becomes party to corrupt practices (i.e. fake labourers who are on MRs, but never work). Coercion and collusion can both continue even with biometric authentication.
Since 2013, the Supreme Court has ordered several times that aadhaar is not compulsory. The ministry has repeatedly attempted to evade these orders. One-line clarifications (that aadhaar is not compulsory) are accompanied with half-page instructions on how to seed aadhaar into NREGASoft.
NREGASoft was reworked so that work demand could only be registered if it was accompanied by the aadhaar number. An exemption feature exists, but is not understood by field staff. More recently, written circulars have been replaced by verbal pressure (e.g. through video conferences) to achieve aadhaar-integration. The message is clear - no aadhaar, no work.
The pressure to ensure aadhaar-integration has been so immense that in some states, field staff deleted job cards when the aadhaar number was unavailable. In Chitradurga (Karnataka), 10-15 crores of wages from 2014-2015 are were held up for a year. When payments were being processed, their job cards could not be traced in NREGASoft. Upon enquiry, the district administration learnt field staff had deleted them to achieve "100 percent aadhaar-seeding". Similar instances have been reported in Jharkhand too.
The only hope for NREGA comes from Tamil Nadu (TN). Technology has been put to good use, NREGA administrators have remained firm masters. In TN, NREGA labourers have remained at the centre of administrator's efforts. In 2014-2015, each job cardholder got 32 days of work on average (in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, the average was 17 days). Women's share in total employment was 85 percent (68 and 59 percent in Rajasthan and AP respectively).
Tamil Nadu has successfully resisted Delhi's attempts at overcentralized technocratic control. In 2008-2009, when the central ministry wanted the transition to bank payments within a year, TN ignored Delhi's deadlines. Ensuring low corruption in others ways, the transition was completed in about five years. Similarly, the state does not use EMRs at all, is able to ensure timely employment and wages are mostly paid within seven days. The worker-centric efforts in Tamil Nadu provide the greatest hope for NREGA's future.
(Reetika Khera is ICCR Visiting Professor at King's College, London and teaches at IIT Delhi.)
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