Tuesday, March 29, 2016

32. Slow but Steady Success, The Hindu, 25 April, 2010. With Karuna Muthiah.

Slow but Steady Success
The Hindu, 
25 April, 2010
With Karuna Muthiah.

Updated: April 24, 2010 17:36 IST

Slow but steady success

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Photo: Reetika KheraWomen at work under the NREGA in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

Photo: Reetika KheraAt a gram panchayat meeting.

Tamil Nadu's success in implementing the NREGA shows its commitment to social welfare, and the way ahead for other states.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), enacted in 2005, has had a varied record so far. In many states, implementation has been lame (e.g. Bihar and Gujarat) or marred by corruption (e.g. Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh) but some states, notably Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, have raced ahead and are widely regarded as NREGA “success stories”. Less well known are Tamil Nadu's achievements in this regard. This article, based on field visits to Villupuram (in 2007 and 2008), Cuddalore (in 2008) and Dindigul (in March 2010), seeks to convey some of these achievements.

The scale of NREGA employment (average person-days per rural household) in Tamil Nadu has increased steadily between 2006-7 and 2009-10: from 9 to 42 days in the Phase 1 districts. In the initial years of implementation, the focus of the state government seems to have been on putting systems and staff in place. At the outset, it took innovative steps to prevent corruption. For instance, recognising that the procurement of materials requires contractors and that contractors are a major source of corruption, the state issued orders to implement only kachhaworks, i.e. works with no material component.

Strict monitoring

Similarly, while the Act allows line departments (such as the Forest Department) to implement NREGA works, in Tamil Nadu all NREGA funds are spent through Gram Panchayats (GPs). As GPs are relatively accessible to NREGA workers, they tend to be more accountable than line departments. Further, the state has built a strict monitoring system for NREGA, one of the best in the country. This is combined with firm and swift action against those who are found guilty of fraud. Though this does not happen in each case, the demonstration effects of selective action are significant.

Two other achievements in Tamil Nadu deserve mention. First, women's participation in NREGA. The share of women in the NREGA workforce in Tamil Nadu has remained high (around 80 per cent) from the beginning and is the highest in the country. Women are also employed in sizeable numbers as NREGA staff at the GP and Block level as worksite supervisors (Makkal Nala Panniyalars, or MNPs), data entry operators and so on. Second, the involvement of GPs in the implementation of NREGA is also noteworthy. The GP plays an active role in selecting NREGA works, monitoring implementation, and so on. GPs are well-equipped (with proper buildings, furniture, computers, stationery, staff), which enables them to perform these roles. Regular and well-attended Gram Panchayat meetings indicate that GPs are functional and lively. Even here, participation of women is noticeable.

In Dindigul, our main focus was on whether wage payments were being made in a timely manner and whether there was any evidence of corruption. According to the Management Information System (MIS), Tamil Nadu is one of two states (along with Andhra Pradesh) where there are no significant delays in wage payments. This was indeed true, we found. None of the workers we spoke to had any complaint of delayed payment. The work week ends on Thursday, output is measured on Friday, cheques are issued on Monday, and wages are paid on Tuesday. Payments are made in a public place and “job cards” are updated at this time. This is a significant achievement given that delays in wage payments have caused great hardship of NREGA workers in many other parts of the country.

Cash payments

In 2008, the central government ordered all wage payments to be made directly to workers' bank and post office accounts, as an anti-corruption measure. Tamil Nadu is the only state that continues to make wage payments in cash, on the grounds that it helps to avoid delays. To see if corruption was an issue, we verified entries in job cards (downloaded from the NREGA website, www.nrega.nic.in). All muster rolls (MRs) are entered on the MIS, and each person's workdays and wages are automatically entered on the “electronic” job cards. It is therefore possible to use the electronic job card to verify whether any wage money has been embezzled. We verified 23 job cards (from three Gram Panchayats spread over two Blocks). According to the official records, the labourers on these job cards had earned Rs. 92,050 as wages. Of this, Rs. 1,395 was not corroborated by the labourers, suggesting that only 1.5 percent was siphoned off.

This is consistent with other reports on Tamil Nadu's success in controlling corruption in NREGA works. The main reason why Tamil Nadu is able to check corruption, in spite of cash payments, is its effective monitoring system. MRs are maintained at the worksite. Labourers sign the MR each day. (In Dindigul, a District Collector who felt that thumbprints were being forged issued instructions for all those labourers to be taught how to sign in evening classes.) There are strict instructions on maintenance of MRs - the total number of male and female workers is entered below the name of the last labourer, so that no more names can be added, absent labourers have to be marked on the MR with a red-ink rubber stamp by 10.00 a.m., and so on. By 10.00 a.m., all MNPs report that day's attendance to the Block, uploaded on an internal government website. The department uses this information and sends out squads to carry out random checks to verify reported attendance. Many MNPs have been visited by such squads and are therefore careful about MR maintenance. This is not to say that there is no corruption: for instance, during a study in 10 GPs of Cuddalore, one of us found massive corruption in one GP. Petty corruption also continues (e.g., as mentioned earlier in the case of workers who use thumbprints). An easy way to reduce corruption further would be to make daily attendance public (through the website) so that everyone can monitor these worksites.

All is not well

There were two main complaints in Dindigul: lack of work and non-payment of minimum wages. Though the average person-days for the job cards we verified was 57 days, most labourers wanted more. Further, the daily wage earned ranged from Rs. 70-85 (the minimum wage in Tamil Nadu is Rs. 100/day).

Speaking to one panchayat thalaivar (president), we learnt that there is no dearth of funds. Though the GP has money, the panchayat had only one MNP. Running more than one worksite simultaneously (or managing too many workers at one worksite) with only one MNP worried him, because it would mean poor supervision. If labour productivity fell to unacceptably low levels, he would get into trouble. To deal with this constraint, the thalaivars rotate work from one habitation to another. This allows them to give work for each habitation and keep the numbers under control. One MNP can handle only up to 100 workers effectively. If there were more MNPs, they could provide more work, avoid rotation (which can be discriminatory) and also improve labour productivity.

There are at least two possible solutions: one, linking appointment of MNPs to the size of the GP (population or number of habitations) in a realistic manner. Another possibility is to train NREGA workers as “mates” to perform some functions of the MNP. For example, if mates maintain MRs, mark out the task for each week, report daily attendance to the MNP/Block and so on, and MNPs monitor mates, one MNP could handle more than one worksite.

Improving productivity

During our worksite visits, we felt that, apart from increasing supervision, labour productivity could be improved by selecting works that labourers themselves perceive as being useful. When we raised the question of labour productivity, a female worker's prompt answer was: “You should see how nicely we made the pond before this one. It is full of water. Now it's hot, that's why we are working like this.” Perhaps the list of permissible works for GPs to choose from could be expanded. For instance, land improvement (e.g., land levelling, farm ponds) on the lands of Dalit farmers could be added to the list.

Tamil Nadu's emergence as an NREGA success story fits into a more general pattern of a relatively well-governed state with a genuine commitment to social welfare. Most social welfare schemes (ICDS, mid-day meals, public health and so on) perform better there than in other parts of the country. For a researcher working mainly in the northern states (as one of us is), Tamil Nadu is heartening. The attention to detail (even, say, column widths in the design of MRs) is quite remarkable. The openness with which officials admit to faults in the system, crucial if one wants to make improvements, is refreshing. The sense of commitment and duty among government employees is palpable. Perhaps this has been fostered by accountability mechanisms in the system as well as a more demanding public (e.g., road-blocks to protest, “petition” writing and use of help lines are quite common). Either way, one thing is certain: there is a lot to learn from Tamil Nadu.

Reetika Khera is affiliated to the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi and Karuna Muthiah is a farmer in Dindigul.

Keywords: NREGA, Tamil Nadu, Reetika Khera, wage payment, Gram Panchayat