The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been unwell for some time, and the symptoms are evident. Employment is lagging, despite signs of increasing demand. Asset creation is declining. Wage payments are inordinately delayed, and compensations take even longer. The Supreme Court's admonitions serve only as punctuations. While the official budget cap violating the demand-driven nature of the act was subsequently withdrawn, reports from the field suggest that there is a de facto limit on funds. As a result, work is being denied and unemployment allowances withheld. And all this in spite of MGNREGA being allowed its highest ever expenditure in 2016-17, in nominal terms anyway. So what afflicts India's largest employment generation programme? Several things.
Money in government books is finding it difficult to reach the field, which is partly to blame on the states, who must submit audit reports for fresh releases. The delays and complex procedures involved incentivise local officials to violate beneficiaries' right to work. It is after all easier to not register demand for work in the system, than to face the procedural hassles of providing compensations.
The accreted doors and corridors, meant to provide smooth passage through the existing architecture, have in fact turned MGNREGA into an unnavigable maze...
The labyrinthine monitoring processes don't help and accountability is lacking. States seldom penalise violations. Grievance redressal mechanisms are weak, and the two ombudsmen mandated per district are not always found.
India's largest employment generation programme doesn't have enough employees. The many officials that MGNREGA demands, ensures that it is perennially short-staffed (25% vacant posts in December 2015). The lack of necessary skills to operate the increasingly technology-driven systems makes the processes more viscous.
The results are inefficiency and malfeasance, which find innovative ways through the convoluted paths that the programme creates to defeat them. Linkages with Aadhaar, digitisation and direct benefit transfers have not been effective in ending the infractions. The absence of financial/technological infrastructure in most parts of rural India only makes the system ever more cumbersome.
If one takes a step back, it is clear that there is an underlying driver of these problems, namely complexity. In response to every challenge, MGNREGA has sought to add new processes. These accreted doors and corridors, meant to provide smooth passage through the existing architecture, have in fact turned MGNREGA into an unnavigable maze, making it easy to hide away inefficiencies instead of facilitating operations.
So, is the problem with the structure or the implementation? The two are inseparable. Consider the fact that the MGNREGA structure involves the central government, state governments and local governments at the district, block and village levels. At each of these levels, multiple agencies are involved, such as the Central and State Employment Guarantee Councils, and the relevant ministries. During the planning stage, five-year District Perspective Plans are constructed after meetings and inputs from gram sabhas, ward sabhas, and gram panchayats. They are then scrutinised by MGNREGA block programme officers, and sent to taluk panchayats. The plans are then consolidated and scrutinised once more at the zilla parishad level, with the assistance of technical resource support groups.
Implementation happens at the panchayat level, and involves several more administrative hands. The list of officials who are supposed to assist panchayats include gram rozgar sahayaks or work site supervisors or field assistants, technical assistants to measure and monitor work, computer assistants to keep, update and transmit records.
The first instinct of our governments is to combat inefficiencies by frustrating those who would manipulate the processes, but this invariably increases opacity, and offers them hiding places.
Vigilance and monitoring committees are charged with ensuring that this incomprehensible machinery actually works, but they don't always exist. In addition to planning and implementation, panchayats must also maintain separate registers for employment, applications, job cards, assets, muster rolls, muster roll issue and receipts, and complaints. There are far too many other mandates to recount, which are often honoured only in breach. If like me, you too are feeling overwhelmed by all this, spare a thought for our beleaguered local governments, for whom this is only one of the many schemes to be managed.
And yet, all this regimentation doesn't ensure uniformity. There are as many MGNREGAs in India, as there are states. Even the "star" states with relatively better implementation have not been immune to shortcomings. All the pieces of this puzzle do not fit together as seamlessly in practice, as they are supposed to in theory.
One way of tackling the mismanagement that arises from such institutional clutter is by bringing transparency. Monitoring the programme and making the data available to the public is the usually advocated approach. MGNREGA already purports to do this. It was after all one of the first government schemes to adopt a comprehensive MIS. But the sheer scale and density of it makes updating reliable data, much less using it, difficult. Workarounds are learnt, and leakages and elite capture remain real concerns. For all its stated ideals, the system is far more onerous than it is transparent or even complete.
There is a large body of research which has studied these issues and offered solutions. This essay only seeks to illustrate how well-meaning systems can become unwieldy and counterproductive. The first instinct of our governments is to combat inefficiencies by frustrating those who would manipulate the processes, but this invariably increases opacity, and offers them hiding places. MGNREGA is an interesting case study of an all-pervasive problem, and its declining efficiency has provided as many answers as questions. All one can say for certain however, is that it's complicated.