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Flawed job scheme

Flawed job scheme

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Times of India
Date: February 10, 2006
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/S_Dasgupta_Flawed_job_scheme/articleshow/2770154.cms

Introduction: A normal world is impatient with dogmatic adventurism. In the Indian Wonderland where nothing succeeds like failure, ideological loonies have acquired the right to blow up public money. They were clever: they just gifted the copyright of a bad idea to Sonia Gandhi.

When the Communist states of Eastern Europe collapsed in the early-1990s, there were anxious debates in Marxist circles over what had gone wrong. The common sense explanation was pretty simple: the dictatorship of the party was tyrannical, opaque, excessively bureaucratic and plain inefficient. The system violated human nature. For those who felt history was on their side, the collapse lent itself to a curious explanation. The socialist bloc, they argued, had crumbled because it had deviated from the true path.

Dogmatists and ideologues hate admitting they were ever wrong. Disaster is never attributed to a bad idea but to human foibles. The remedy is never to abandon flawed beliefs but to cling to it more tenaciously.

As Budget Day approaches, the dogmatists have mounted a campaign to elevate a failed idea into a national catastrophe. There is pressure on the government to widen the scope of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, now operational in 330 districts, nationally. Last year, the NREG Programme devoured Rs 12,000 crore of taxpayers' money; this year, its drum-beaters want double that amount.

There is nothing wrong per se in the idea that all citizens should be able to get a guaranteed 100 days of paid work. It has more self-respect than queuing up for a dole. A spurt in rural employment can contribute to greater liquidity and increased consumption which, in turn, is good for the economy.

The problem arises in how work is defined. By getting people to dig a great big pit one day and filling it up the next, a lot of man hours will be generated. The job cards will be dutifully ticked. However, manual work that does not have a productive outcome - in this case, creating assets - is a national drain. It's also a crime when you consider the opportunity costs.

The NREGA deems that 60% of any approved project must comprise labour costs. The other 40% can include material and skilled labour. It's an absurd stipulation that virtually rules out the meaningful use of bricks and mortar. It has meant that a huge amount of manpower has been expended in the creation of non-tangible assets such as kuccha roads which will be washed away during the rains. True, the first year has also witnessed the cleaning of many village ponds and the creation of other water bodies. But you can't keep doing this year after year.

Secondly, as those with a stake in India would have predicted, an incompetent state machinery, riddled with corruption, is incapable of implementing a programme of this magnitude with sincerity. A draft report by the Comptroller and Auditor General reveals that only 3.2% of the registered households could avail of 100 days 'guaranteed' work. The average employment under NREGP was just 18 days. Rahul Gandhi says that only five per cent of the money reaches the beneficiaries. Yet, the Centre persists with the fiction that nearly all the 2.73 crore households seeking work have got it.

A report on the NREGA website says that in the six chosen districts of Karnataka only 13 households were provided 50 mandays employment in seven months. This 'achievement' cost Rs 1.47 crore in wages, Rs 1.65 crore on material and Rs 2.84 crore on 'contingencies'!

To correct the follies, the fanatics want a dedicated babudom to run NREGP - a remedy worse than the ailment.

A normal world is impatient with dogmatic adventurism. In the Indian Wonderland where nothing succeeds like failure, ideological loonies have acquired the right to blow up public money. They were clever: they just gifted the copyright of a bad idea to Sonia Gandhi.


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