IMPLEMENTATION OF NREGA - EXPERIENCE OF KERALA

S.M.Vijayanand, IAS
Principal Secretary [LSG]
Government of Kerala

V.N.Jithendran, IAS
Mission Director
NREGA, Kerala.


Introduction.

Kerala has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. But most of the
unemployed are educated. Thus NREGA has only limited application in tackling
the problem of unemployment among the poor of Kerala. Yet it has a niche ideal
for about 4 to 5 lakh people who are willing to do physical labour and for whom
an addtitional annual income of Rs.12,500/- obtained from the Employment
Guarantee Scheme would be a substantial boost in income and purchasing power.
Therefore right at the beginning a political decision was taken to target the
eligible families, visualising NREGS as the nucleus of a concerted and convergent
anti-poverty initiative.

Innovative features.

The following are the innovative features in the organization of the Employment
Guarantee Programme.

1) The agriculture workers of Kerala are fairly well organized into trade unions.
Therefore primacy is given for the organization of meetings of registered
workers. This enables proper assessment of demand and in inculcating the
workers perspective in the design of the programme - in choice of the works
in preference of locations and in deciding the schedule.

2) Kerala uses trained facilitators in the workers meetings as well as in
subsequent Grama Sabhas. This ensures that these fora are used effectively to
convey the principles and features of NREGA to the lay citizen. These
facilitators help in the conduct of these meetings in a semi-structured and
orderly manner.

3) Panchayati Raj Institutions are in the central place in the planning and
implementation of NREGA. They are the sole agencies responsible for this.
Since Kerala has a very strong decentralization experience, Panchayati Raj
Institutions have considerable capacity in the planning and implementation of
local development works. They have used this capacity to full advantage in
the implementation of NREGA. It is significant to note that as of now the
entire implementation is in the hands of Village Panchayats.

4) A strong engineering support system has been put in place. In addition to one
diploma/degree holder working on contract at the level of the Village
Panchayat, there is a system of accredited engineers. Such engineers are
drawn from amongst retired engineers, staff working in Engineering Colleges,
Polytechnics/ ITIs, engineers working in NGOs etc. These engineers are paid
for their work, at rates fixed by Government. Further, if any engineer from a
government department or agency is willing to help the Village Panchayat
over and above his normal work, he is also allowed to do so and is paid at
50% of the rate applicable to others.

5) Technical Sanction is given not by individual engineers, but by a Technical
Committee of engineers. The Committee normally includes a government
engineer, a retired engineer and an engineer working in an academic
institution. This has introduced transparency in the issue of Technical
Sanction.

6) Since disputes are common regarding measurements, an appellate system has
been put in place at the district level. This has facilitated speedy sorting out of
disputes.

7) In order to mobilize the workers and the public and to assist the panchayat in
carrying out its duties, Village Panchayats have been given the freedom to
identify one public servant of their choice having the time and inclination to
do social work from any government department and such persons are posted
on working arrangement as NREGA co-ordinators.

8) The most radical feature of implementation of NREGA in Kerala is the central
place given to Kudumbasree in the implementation of the programme. Under
Kudumbasree every family below poverty line is organzied into a
Neighbourhood Group (NHG) at the local level consisting of 15 to 40 families
with each family being represented only by a woman. The NHGs are
federated into an Area Development Society (ADS) at the level of the Ward of
the Village Panchayat (a Village Panchayat Ward in Kerala has a population
of around 1500 to 2000). The ADSs in a Village Panchayat are federated into
a registered body called the Community Development Society (CDS). Each
NHG, ADS and CDS has five volunteers carrying out different functional
roles.

The ADS has been entrusted with the task of organizing public works under
NREGS. Muster Rolls and other records are maintained by the ADS,
implements are provided to labourers by them and the transparency and
monitoring requirements are also carried out by them. Welfare amenities to
the workers are also provided by the ADS. Since ADS is an organization of
the poor and is basically a woman's group, there has been greater sensitivity
and community participation in the implementation process.

9) In order to promote transparency, it is mandatory that the estimates are
summarized in the local idiom as understood by ordinary people. At the
beginning of every work, the nature of work, expected out turn and the likely
wages are explained to the workers' groups.

10) Since Kerala has limited public land, it has been decided to take up eco-
restoration works in degraded forest lands. It is significant to note that Village
Panchayats would implement the programme in forest areas with the technical
supervision being done by field level officials of the Forest Department
representing a new kind of relationship between a Panchayat Raj Institution
and a government department.

11) A conscious decision has been taken by Government in keeping with the spirit
of NREG Act to limit road works to 10% of the total expenditure and to give
special priority to integrated watershed development works.

12) Another unique feature of implementation of NREGS in Kerala is that there is
total financial inclusion of each and every worker; that is, the wages are paid
only into the individual bank accounts of workers, and no exception has been
made till date.

Achievements

Compared to the earlier wage employment programmes there have been
significant achievements under NREGS. They are:

1. So far through a combination of transparent processes and procedures, local
action and constant vigilance it can be proudly be claimed that
implementation of NREGA has been totally corruption free. The factors
contributing to this situation include: -

a) A clear political decision was conveyed to the Panchayats that the
scheme has to be implemented strictly according to the letter and spirit
of the Act. There were several pragmatists arguing for an asset focused
programme ignoring the processes and conforming to the procedures
on paper, and it was argued that Kerala would lose out as the demand
for unskilled labour is very limited and as the wages are much higher
than the statutory minimum wages in more than 90% of the State, it
would be better to go for public works. But this opinion was firmly
rejected.

b) The work is organized through the Kudumbashree system and the poor
have a stake in the work right at the beginning.

c) The technocratic power to accord Technical Sanction, measure works
and recommend payments has been made more spread out and
accountable through the Committee system and in case of difference of
opinion the appellate system.

d) A lot of social activists have been motivated to keep constant vigil as a
kind of continuous concurrent social audit.

e) Special emphasis have been given to the rights of workers and they
have been made fully aware of their entitlements. In a state where
workers are fairly well organized this has resulted in their jealous
guarding of their privileges.

f) All the payments are made only through the individual bank accounts
of workers. This is the ultimate preventer of corruption.

Yet there are apprehensions that once material purchase starts, corruption
would come in, in some form or the other. The state is earnestly trying to
put in a system which deters corruption and the details are being worked
out. Till then the focus would be on labour-intensive works.

2. Implementation of NREGA has contributed to very high levels of women
empowerment, particularly in the following aspects.

i) As the work is organized by women’s groups, the gender perspective
gets built in automatically.

ii) As women are comfortable working along with their neighbors, nearly
80% of the workers have been women.

iii) For the first time equal wages are really paid and this has boosted the
earnings of women.

iv) As the wages are paid into Bank accounts the habit of thrift which was
already inculcated through the Kudumbashree experiment has further
been strengthened.

v) As the Bank deposits are increasing, the intra-household status of the
woman has also been improving commensurately as she controls
substantial cash resources and withdrawal can be only on her decision.

3. NREGS has given rise to a new work culture. Hitherto workers were
controlled by contractors and their middlemen who knew how to extract work.
When NREGS began the out-turn was very poor as the workers could not be
supervised properly. But soon the workers themselves realized that they
would be losing collectively and a new internal dynamics evolved with peer
pressure forcing workers to put in their maximum effort. At the same time a
kind of social responsibility also became evident as more capable workers
became more than willing to put in extra effort to make up for those who
genuinely could not do hard work beyond a point, like the women and the
elderly.

4. Public works have gained respectability. Hitherto they were seen as
highjacked either by a contractor or a local leader. Now the workers see it as
their right. They tend to distinguish between wages provided by a contractor
and wages directly given by the Panchayat. The latter is almost equated with a
salary. This has motivated a large section of people who were hitherto
unwilling to work into join the work force. There was an interesting instance
of a penurious descendant of the erstwhile Kollengode royal family in
Palakkad taking an active part in NREGS and even motivating her relatives to
join on the logic that self-help and access to legally entitled emoluments from
a public source is better than charity from relatives.

5. NREGS has suddenly increased purchasing power of the poor and there is
visible local economic development. This is particularly true of Wayanad
which was ridden with farmer suicides. The peasants have managed to get
substantial relief from NREGS by getting over their inhibition in working as
labourers in richer farmer’s lands by moving on to the now-respectable public
works.

New Initiatives

Now that a working model for operationalization of NREGA has stabilized
certain new initiatives have been started. They are:
(1) A National Rural Employment Guarantee Mission has been approved and a
Mission Director posted.
(2) A convergent Anti-Poverty Sub-Plan is to be prepared using the
Kudumbashree network. The components of the Anti-Poverty Sub-Plan would
include:
 NREGS - for wage employment
 SGSY and Kudumbashree programmes – for skill development and self
employment
 SSA
 NRHM for Human Development
 ICDS
o Including nutrition for children in the age group 0 – 3 and
adolescent girls
 Annapoorna and Anthyodaya Anna Yojana for food security
 IGNOAPS
 Asraya of Kudumbashree Social Security
 Health Insurance

 IAY Minimum needs infrastructure
 People’s Plan
The detailed methodology has been developed and firmed up in about 100 Village
Panchayats whereby at the local level Neighbourhood Groups of the poor prepare
micro plans focusing on individual and family needs and at the level of the ADS
these are consolidated and components relating to community assets added and
thereafter the plans are integrated by the CDS at the level of the Village
Panchayat by bringing in elements related to human development and economic
development. The plan prepared by the poor is negotiated with the Panchayat and
approved.

(3) A strong natural resource management focus has been given to NREGS. One
of the topmost environmentalists in the country has been recruited as a
consultant and agricultural graduates are being taken as young professionals.
It has also been decided to take up a mega scheme for Bharathapuzha River
rejuvenation with action plans emanating from the Village Panchayat as
building blocks.
(4) A methodology is being developed to integrate NREGS and People’s Plan.
Village Panchayats get more than Rs.1 crore on an average under People’s
Plan. If intelligently dovetailed it is expected that substantial improvement in
quality of assets can be attained.
(5) In order to meet the problems due to shortage of technical staff it has been
decided to rope in voluntary services of reputed non-government
organizations. Already in one district a firm offer has been received and in
principle clearance given. The details are being worked out.
(6) Using the excellent network of Kudumbashree it has been decided in the State
Employment Guarantee Council to develop a cadre of bare-foot technical
volunteers from among the poor women.
(7) In order to develop the skills of the workers it has been decided to set up
Labour Banks. A pilot has been launched in one Village Panchayat. The
Labour Banks would be supported under People’s Plan to take up other public
works and even private works.
(8) It is well-nigh impossible to identify works in the plantation areas as well as in
the coastal areas. It has been decided to seek the expert support from
Government of India to come out with a shelf of projects which can be taken
up in such geographical areas.
(9) An innovative form of training has been developed by KILA where there is a
shift from the cascading model to a “ripple” model, according to which
outstanding Panchayats become the master trainers and the neighbouring
Panchayats formally learn from the experience of the best performers.
(10) Monitoring has been strengthened with the decision of the State
Employment Guarantee Council to put in a system of State level and District
level quality Monitors by identifying persons with reputation for integrity and
competence. The State level Monitors would be of two categories –
outstanding individuals whose views are widely respected by society and
senior Technical Experts capable of giving authoritative feed back on the
quality of implementation. Further the State Employment Guarantee Council
has decided to request a team consisting of eminent experts like Smt. Aruna
Roy, Prof. Jean Dreze, Shri P. Sainath and Shri Nikil De to conduct an
independent assessment of Kerala’s performance and offer suggestions for
improvement.

Conclusion

Though there were several teething problems it is clear that the policy focus on
natural resource management and corruption-free implementation and the
administrative measures introduced to operationalise the policy especially the
involvement of the Kudumbasree network have resulted in a strong foundation
being laid and opened up space for pro-poor innovations.