Monday, November 12, 2007

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is one of the few well-intentioned schemes to come out of the current UPA government. The NREGS guarantees 100days of unskilled work per family for every family that is below the poverty line. Now, lets not even go into how BPL classifications are calculated or the absurdity and lack of context to the BPL surveys. There are many points about this scheme which are at a macro level wrong --
  1. As one of the recipients of this scheme famously said "Are our tummies on vacation the remaining 265 days?" What is the rationale behind 100 days per one member of family?
  2. Providing work that required unskilled labor is essentially a welfare scheme. It is not promoting the skill sets of that targeted population. Its the classic case of "give them fish, rather than teach them to fish". Potentially the same money can be spent at every Panchayat level to provide training in skills that will lead the population towards economic independence and dignity.
  3. As many social audits across the districts where the scheme is being implemented show, the muster rolls are largely fudged, corruption accounts for a huge drain on this money, and a very small percentage of the money actually trickles down to the intended recipient. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi, when he was the Prime Minister, famously admitted that only 15% of government spending manages to reach the recipient. The rest is wastage. A similar Employment Guarantee Scheme tried out in Maharashtra in 1976 had already fallen victim to this atrocious Public Distribution System. In fact, the Indian government does not have any evidence of being capable of properly implementing any social welfare scheme.
Given all these obvious issues, the question then is if not NREGS, then what? The problem is not restricted to unskilled work, and then neither is the solution. Clearly the solution needs to be autonomous, small, and needs to come from the bottom, from the folks who need the money. The government needs to stop dictating lives and stop interfering. The policies that restrict our manufacturing sector from matching the growth in the services sector need to go. Agriculture has to be supported, or the farmers transitioning from agriculture into manufacturing or services need to be provided the skills to do that (again, allow private enterprise, and it will come about organically, instead of some governmental masterminding). National budgets need to spend less on defence and instead pour some funds into Education (at all levels). And in the middle of all this, the right folks will get the right skills and will be able to get their right to livelihood.

A possible counter-argument of course is that while all this is happening, people are starving. Maybe a combination of some scheme with a larger solution in tow is probably what is recommended. However, the government seems intent on earning hearsay goodwill (read votes, and support of left-parties) by implementing only the welfare schemes, and the bureaucracy is happy to implement the scheme with its 85% drain on many crores of rupees!

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