Rejigging NREGA, the wrong way

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is once again in the news, for the wrong reasons. Arbitrary changes in the guidelines by the rural development ministry, has turned a requirement into a controversial, self-defeating exercise. Former members of the National Advisory Council like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and their colleagues who have been working in a sustained way on NREGA, have opposed the new proposals. They have made a valid criticism on the lack of discussion. Recently, on the birth anniversary of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, it was declared that Lok Sewaks are to be appointed in every village to implement NREGA. Has any state government been consulted on this? And why should proposed panchayat bhavans in villages be mandatorily named after the late prime minister? Don't villages have heroes who merit recognition? Over-centralisation is one of the problems of an otherwise extremely important piece of social legislation.

However the contention of the critics of the new proposals, that there should be no changes in the Act till it is fully and properly implemented is not in tune with the experience of the last four years of the Act's implementation, particularly for workers. As far as the government proposals are concerned, they need to be modified and clarified rather than rejected.

From the workers' point of view, the main issue that requires change is to shift from piece-rated to time-rated work. Harsh conditions of work, the very nature of the work and the high productivity norms make it extremely difficult to earn a minimum wage even after a full day's work which has been unfairly extended to nine hours. When REGA started the standard norm was to dig at least 100 cubic feet a day and to lift out the mud. Rough calculations put that around 1000 to 1500 kilos of mud a day depending on the type of soil being dug. It is hardly a relief measure to expect a malnourished woman to carry that kind of load to earn a day's wage. Since the base level is so high even the decreased productivity norms subsequently made by many states hardly helps. It would be fair to adopt a time-rated system.

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