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Calcutta Notebook

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NREGP (National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme), commonly known as the programme of 100 days' work has been the subject of much controversy ever since the beginning of its implementation during the first term of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It should be noted at the outset that implementation of the programme for the entire quota of 100 days a year has seldom been witnessed, and in West Bengal work under this scheme has been done for 20-25 days on the average. In rural India, agriculture being still considerably dependent on monsoon, unemployment was, and still is, a serious problem, and the NREGP was supposed to alleviate the problem at least to some extent.

NREGP, to the extent that it has been implemented, has increased the bargaining power of the rural work force in the labour market and hence rich farmers employing wage labour are not happy about it. In most cases, they do not count the increasing expenditure on seeds, fertilizers, pesticides etc and lay the blame of increased cost of cultivation on labour costs only. One section of the middle and upper middle classes too are opposed to the NREGP because of their ideological inclination to see the subalterns in the lowest level of the economic hierarchy, as well as owing to the belief that the lion's share of all the benefits emanating from public expenditure should go to the corporate sector, which will provide handsome jobs to their children. When economists too employ their intellect against the NREGP arguing that it should be done away with, the matter seems to merit serious examination.

For example, a well-known economist, who has taught at famous universities in India and abroad, has written in one leading English daily highlighting what he thinks the negative sides of the NREGP. His argument is twofold: owing to the non-use of capital goods, the rural assets built with rural labour are not at all durable; embankments and dams are washed away by rainfall in every monsoon. Secondly, he argues that workers employed under the NREGP do not even take up other types of productive employment because they get reasonable amounts of money from the NREGP and hence do not feel any urge to do other productive works. This second argument is patently absurd, because it presupposes that before the start of the NREGP, there was no involuntary employment in rural India. What a grand idea it is to say that the money obtained from only 50 days' (in case of West Bengal, not more than 25 days') work under the NREGP is sufficient to satisfy the material needs of a rural labourer and his/her family. The first argument however, has some truth.

Yet even with traditional tools something may be done, e.g digging of ponds and tanks that are useful for the promotion of fish culture as well as supply of irrigation water, if the work is suitably planned. Again, with some amount of intermediate goods, durable and productive assets can be easily created. In this way, the output potential of the NREGP may be realized without incurring much additional cost. It is in this respect that the implementation of the NREGP is seriously flawed. Yet it cannot be gainsaid that the NREGP has at least recognized the problem of rural unemployment. Hence the task is not to abolish the NREGP but to remove its defects and make it a source not only of generation of income and demand but also of generation of output and supply.

In his well-known book "Development with Dignity", Professor Amit Bhaduri has advocated a vigorous expansion of public works for building decentralized productive capacity. To quote him, "The public works should consist of projects relating to a range of activities like rural communication, warehouses, local water management schemes, water sheds, school buildings , health centres, local forestry work etc." (Ibid, p-71)The NREGP may fruitfully be utilized for undertaking such projects, providing necessary capital and intermediate goods. It must not be supposed, however, that such projects will invariably be capital-intensive ones.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 51, Jun 29 - Jul 5, 2014