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NREGA: Challenges in implementation

By Tanushree Sood

Seven months into India's ambitious National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, guaranteeing 100 days of employment a year to every rural household in 200 districts, several problems of implementation are being reported from the field

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is now seven months old. It guarantees 100 days of employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual work. The Act, launched in February 2006, has come into force in 200 districts of the country.

The NREGA is an important step towards realisation of the right to work. It is expected to enhance people's livelihood security on a sustained basis, by developing economic and social infrastructure in rural areas. One of the most distinguishing features of the NREGA is its approach towards empowering citizens to play an active role in the implementation of employment guarantee schemes, through gram sabhas, social audit, participatory planning and other activities.

"More than 83.05 lakh rural households have been provided work under the NREGA," said Rural Development Minister Dr Raghuvansh Prasad at a meeting in the Lok Sabha on August 25, 2006. He went on to add that 254,73,820 job cards had been issued, of which 89,43,703 people had demanded employment.

The NREGA is being closely monitored by various stakeholders, from policymakers to grassroots organisations. Surveys -- both rapid and extensive -- are being carried out to assess its implementation on the ground. Reports point out where the Act is lagging behind, and areas where efforts are visible and appreciated. This article discusses some quarters that need to be addressed in order to meet the objectives of the Act.

Registration of families

Definition of a household

The operational guidelines of the NREGA detail a household as a nuclear family comprising mother, father and their children. In addition, a household refers to a single-member family. Despite this explanation, there is still a lot of confusion about the definition of this critical term. For instance, reports from Madhya Pradesh (Dhar district) show that gram panchayats treat joint families as one household, thus issuing them a single job card. Our country has historically followed the system of joint families; such practices will put joint families in a disadvantageous position.

Denial of registration

Reports from the field point to incidents of denial of registration to single-woman-headed households and physically challenged individuals. Discrimination based on caste has also been noted in some states like Gujarat. During a survey conducted by Participatory Research in Action (PRIA) in the state of Uttar Pradesh (Sitapur district), women were discouraged from registering. In Gujarat (Sabarkantha district) the aged and physically challenged were denied registration forms (report by Participatory Research in Action (PRIA); survey undertaken from April 25-May 25 in 11 states. For complete report visit http://www.righttofoodindia.org/rtowork/ega_articles.html).

Distribution of job cards

According to data provided on the NREGA website (www.nrega.nic.in), maintained by the Ministry of Rural Development, the percentage of job cards issued to registered households varies across states. For some states like Maharashtra it stands at 12%, while for others such as Andhra Pradesh it is over 90%.

Delay in distribution of job cards

The point of concern, however, is not just the percentage of issue of job cards but the percentage of distribution of job cards. Though job cards have been prepared across most states, in many states they have not reached the people, thereby restricting their right to demand work. A probable cause for this is the workload of the panchayat sevak who undertakes the task of distribution. On average, each sevak has two or three panchayats under him/her, thus making the task extremely difficult.

Applications for work and their receipt

Unsolicited fees being charged for work application forms

Fees for application forms are being charged in many states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. The fee ranges from Rs 5 to Rs 50 in some states. Forms are also sold openly in local markets or haats. This flouts the NREGA guidelines that state that applications may even be submitted to the gram panchayat on a plain piece of paper.

Non-issuance of receipts

Another general problem noted in the villages is the absence of a system to issue receipts (pauthis) to applicants. This could be because of lack of awareness on the part of the panchayat sevak and the villagers. Receipts, however, are crucial as a proof of work demanded.

Implementation and supervision of NREGS works

Absence of worksite facilities

The NREGA provides for facilities for safe drinking water, shade for children, periods of rest and a first-aid box at the work site (Section 27, Schedule II of the NREGA). But a lot has to be done to ensure these facilities, the notable absence of which is a problem that cuts across states. Some reports from the field in Orissa (Kalahandi district) (Advisor to the Commissioners; Implementation of NREGA in Bhawanipatna block of Kalahandi district of Orissa, June 2006), Chhattisgarh (Jashpur district), Jharkhand (Palamau district), Madhya Pradesh (Jhabua, Khandwa and Umaria districts) and Gujarat (Sabarkantha district) observe a complete lack of facilities at the worksite. In Rajasthan's Dungarpur district, however, it was heartening to note that medical kits were found at most worksites.

Small children remain unattended, in the heat. As a consequence, women are hesitant to bring their children to the sites. It also forces them to rethink about applying for work in the first place. Trees act as the only source of shade for the rural poor working at the sites. The Commissioners of the Supreme Court (in the case of PUCL vs UoI and others) have advised the states that if need be, temporary shelters must be built for those doing NREGA labour. The PIL focuses on the general need to uphold the 'right to food', which follows from the fundamental 'right to life' enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Though the final judgment in the case is still awaited, significant 'interim orders' have been passed from time to time.

Presence of contractors

Like in many other rural development programmes, contractors are increasingly becoming a threat to the NREGA. Though this may not be very apparent on the surface, private contractors are slowly finding their way into the system. The Act clearly states (Schedule I, Section 11), that no contractor is permitted in the implementation of these projects. Yet, reports from Chhattisgarh and Orissa point towards this emerging problem.

Non-availability of muster rolls at the worksite

It is rare indeed to find muster rolls at the worksites. Reports from across NREGA districts show that kutcha muster rolls/attendance sheets are being maintained by people at worksites. Rough notebooks and diaries are being used to mark attendance and make wage payments.

Shortage of staff and delay in appointments

The Act's launch was not accompanied by the appointment of additional staff for its implementation. This has resulted in the existing staff being burdened with additional work. At the panchayat level, the guidelines specifically advised the appointment of a 'rozgar sevak'. Disappointingly, this has not yet been done. The lack of staff is having a negative impact on the workings of the NREGA. A survey in Jashpur block, Chhattisgarh, found that sub-engineers were being burdened with the task of maintaining job cards, implying that their primary tasks suffered. Such additional appointments are a rare opportunity to provide employment to the youth in our villages and should not be allowed to be squandered due to administrative hurdles.

Stopping of works

Some states like Chhattisgarh have disrupted work under the NREGA on account of the monsoons. A circular issued by the Chhattisgarh government clearly states that from June 15 to October 15, the state will not be liable to open works within 15 days, or provide an unemployment allowance. Rumours of similar disruptions also abound in the state of Orissa. Such declarations not only violate the Act, they also affect landless farmers. Field organisations from Chhattisgarh report that due to such stoppages, the wage rate has decreased to as little as Rs 15, leaving landless farmers with no negotiating powers. They are forced to accept whatever is determined by rich landlords. Such occurrences beat the objectives of the formulation of the NREGA.

Disruption due to imposition of election code of conduct

Elections (including by-polls and state elections) also disrupt the Act's implementation. Early this year (in March 2006), some states like West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam witnessed a disruption in the NREGA due to the imposition of the election code of conduct. Lately, the NREGA process is being disrupted in the Malda and Puruliya districts of West Bengal, on account of by-polls. Absence of confirmed employment, refusal of work to applicants and a ban on starting new works in these areas are forcing labourers to migrate in search of work. This, despite clear instructions from the Planning Commission that job cardholders would be provided employment after the announcement of elections (for complete instructions issued by the Planning Commission send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).

Payment of wages

Delay in wage payments

Delays in wage payments have always been a matter of concern in previous employment programmes, and this issue continues to plague the NREGA. Wage payments are delayed for weeks, sometimes months. The time lag varies from state to state. For instance, in Jashpur district, Chhattisgarh, month-long delays were noted. In some areas like Barwani district, Madhya Pradesh, the delay was for a period of 15 to 30 days. Delays were also noted in Manika and Manatu blocks in Jharkhand.

Payment of less than the minimum wage

In many states, workers do not earn minimum wages. For instance, in Gujarat's Sabarkantha district the paid wage is as low as Rs 4 to Rs 7 (status report on implementation of the NREGA in Gujarat, prepared by Sabar Ekta Manch and Janpath, April 2006); in Kalahandi district (Bhawanipatna block) of Orissa workers earn between Rs 40-Rs 50, whereas the minimum wage is Rs 55. Women are paid even less -- about Rs 30 per day. In some states like Jharkhand, workers are paid as little as Rs 10.

The reasons behind payment of less than the minimum wage vary. In some states soil type is not being considered, as a result of which payments are affected. The system of chauka in some states like Jharkhand also leads to the lowering of wages. As elaborated by Jean Dreze and Bela Bhatia, in their article titled 'Employment Guarantee in Jharkhand: Ground Realities', published in the Economic and Political Weekly, July 22, 2006: "Under this system, the workers are supposed to dig a chauka (pit) of pre-specified size (for example, 100 cubic feet in the case of soft soil) in order to earn the minimum wage. In practice, this system raises several problems. To start with, it typically takes more than a day for an average labourer to complete the specified task, making it hard to earn the statutory minimum wage. This is a violation of the Act, which states that the "schedule of rates" should be such that a labourer working for seven hours would normally earn the minimum wage (Schedule I, Section 8)."

While we have highlighted some of the implementation problems of the NREGA, it is important to note that the Act is still in its infancy. It takes years to put in place the tools and instruments needed to actualise the right to employment through a scheme, even in the best of circumstances.

The NREGA addresses itself chiefly to working people and their fundamental right to live with dignity. The success of the NREGA, however, will depend on people's realisation of the Act as a right. Effective levels of awareness and sustained public pressure are crucial to ensure that the implementation problems are addressed and the objectives met.

(Tanushree Sood is a researcher with the Office of the Commissioners to the Supreme Court)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2006