Revision of wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme may help the state reap its benefits, but experts say more is required. Haroon Mirani reports.
In mainland India National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) aimed to guarantee livelihood to unemployed persons and building infrastructure at the same time is in news for scams associated with it. In J&K the scheme hasn’t been attracting enough people.
As a result while states like Rajasthan and Chattisgarh have spent thousands of crores in the scheme, J&K has spent a meagre 87 crore rupees in the financial year 2008-09. There is no limit on expenditure under the scheme.
Rajasthan spent Rs 6164 crores in the same year. Minnow states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar have spent 1434, 1338 and 1315 crore rupees respectively.
The major problem responsible for lack of performance of this scheme in the state has been the low wage rates of Rs 70 per day. In this year’s budget, government revised the wage rate from Rs 70 to Rs 110.
People were not coming forward to work under NREGS as they get more than double the wages in private sector. Most of the NREGS work in the state has been done in the remote locations where people had no other option.
Central government fixes the wages for NREGS volunteers according to the wages fixed by the states in their respective wage acts.
Experts say that the state should have brought the new wage act and raise the wages to the tune of about Rs 150 per day. “The enhanced wages will act as an attraction to the NREGS scheme as more and more unemployed people will opt for NREGS,” said Hanif Balkhi In charge NREGS for Jammu and Kashmir.
The government however is not that willing to revise the wage to that level. “If the wage is increased to Rs 150, the government fears that it will have to increase the wages of its adhoc employees too,” an official told Kashmir Life wishing not to be named. “Those ad hoc employees too are humans and they also deserve extra income particularly when the sixth pay commission has been implemented for other employees.”
The wages under NREGS could be enhanced by other means too. “The central government can classify it as a special case keeping in view the topography and other factors and increase the labour charges,” said Balkhi.
Even after increasing the wage rate to RS 110, the state still hovers at the bottom. Haryana has the highest wage rate of Rs 141, Chandigarh has Rs 140, Andaman and Nicober Rs 130, Kerala Rs 125 and even Lakshwadeep has Rs 115.
“The labourers in private sector get anywhere between 175 to Rs 250 per day,” said Khaliq Bhat a manual labourer of Kupwara. “Why will I or anybody else work for a such meagre amount in government sector.”
Experts fear that the meagre increase in the wage rate will not be enough to spend thousands of crores locked in NREGS funds and it will continue to remain among the lowest performing states for NREGS.
Lack of performance in NREGS is a double blow for the underdeveloped state like Jammu and Kashmir as it also deprives them of valuable infrastructure and assets. The states which have utilised NREGS to hilt have created thousands of schools, roads, water tanks, irrigation canals, forests and other such assets with the money.
NREGS can give boost to development of infrastructure in Kashmir as thousands of crores of rupees are literally begging for disposal. In the current budget around Rs 39000 crore has been allocated for NREGS in entire India. Going by the district wise distribution Jammu and Kashmir’s share stands at Rs 1500 crore. But the money is usually granted with respect to performance.
“There is no limit to the amount which we can be granted to us under the scheme,” said Balkhi. “Only we have to keep pace by identifying and executing projects on fast track basis.”
As the state is unable to utilise the funds, thousands of would be schools, hundreds of would be hospitals, hundreds of kilometres of would be roads, accessibility to inaccessible areas continue to remain an illusion.
NREGS was notified by Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India on September, 2005. The Act gives legal guarantee of at least 100 days of wage employment to a household, whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled and manual work in a financial year. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 could not out- rightly be extended to Jammu & Kashmir due to its special status enshrined in the constitution of India.
The state government accordingly prepared a scheme known as Jammu and Kashmir National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (JKREGS) which was notified after the approval from the State Cabinet by virtue of Government order No- 99-RD of 2007 dated: 13-03-2007.
The scheme encompasses all areas concerning registration, plan formulation, implementation, timely payment of wages, grievance redressal mechanism, right to information, rendering of accounts, periodically meetings for fulfilling statutory requirement of providing 100 days guaranteed employment to rural households who volunteer to do manual work.
Experts opine that NREGS would have helped a lot in reclaiming wasteland and increasing forest cover in the state. According to a report of National Remote Sensing Agency 70 per cent of land in Jammu and Kashmir is classified as wasteland as against the national average of 20 per cent. Punjab has a wasteland area of only 2.5 per cent. “In fact the NREGS is answer to the climate change in Kashmir” said Balkhi. “We could do wonders in increasing the forest cover in the state by applying the scheme in afforestation projects.”
About 80 lakh mandays have been generated under NREGS scheme in Jammu and Kashmir however the potential is in crores. The NREGS has helped increase reach of banks and other financial institutions to remote areas. Around 1.4 lakh bank accounts have been created by the people who have worked under NREGS. “About 70 per cent of the payments are done through the banks in order to avoid middle men and ensure transparency,” said Balkhi. “Besides, there are social audits and other procedures to ensure accountability.”
The work under NREGS has other benefits too. “There is no discrimination between gender with regard to allotment of work, day care facility for children of workers is available near work site, there is increase of 10 per cent in wages if the work is outside 5 kms radius, insurance cover for accidents during works and so on” said Balkhi.
Experts say more works should be included in NREGS to make it more Kashmir specific. “Like we cannot include snow clearance in the NREGS as there is no such option, but it also needs to be included and also other such activities which are unique to Kashmir due to its geographical and climatic conditions,” said Balkhi. Till date New Delhi has been reluctant to include other such works as their thrust has primarily been for ‘asset construction’.
The scheme also envisages appointment of additional supporting staff, in order to implement the scheme in an efficient manner. There is a scope of employing 4000-5000 persons on contractual basis in every district if the scheme is fully implemented.
For transparency the government has successfully put in place Management Information System (MIS), where online inspection is done on every aspect of the scheme ranging from financial to physical aspects. The details of the NREGS scheme in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in other states can be read from www.NREGS.nic.in. The site is being continuously updated to give readers the latest information.
One of the benefits of the NREGS scheme is that the plans are approved in advance year. The identification of the projects starts at village level and it is sent for approval. “Usually every project identified is approved and there is no discrimination in any project” said Balkhi.