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Nirendra Dev**

Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, always cherished about India’s rural beauty, resilient power as much he was concerned about the poverty and living conditions. His pet phrase was India lives in villages. Therefore, it was in fitness of things when the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s government renamed its popular flagship programme National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) after him. The momentous occasion coincided with completion of 50 years of institution of Panchayati Raj in the country. It was on October 2, way back in 1959, country’s first Prime Minister Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, had inaugurated Panchayati Raj at Naguar in Rajasthan.

India, as we know, is a country of villages and it goes without saying that since the dawn of Independence, concerted efforts have been made to ameliorate the living standard of rural masses. Rural development as an integrated concept of growth and poverty elimination has been of paramount concern in all the five year plans. Traditionally, Rural Development programmes comprise of following basic steps like infrastructure facilities in the rural areas, namely schools, health centres, roads, adequate drinking water and electrification. There have been also schemes like improving agricultural productivity, providing social services like health and education for socio-economic development, implementing scheme for the promotion of rural industry and importantly providing rural employment.

All these were going on smoothly undoubtedly. However, despite the strides the country has made in the last six decades, it must be admitted that there have been certain areas especially in rural India where standard of living has been far from satisfactory. Therefore, in 2005, the Government undertook a major venture, which today could be easily called the turning point of the changing face of the Indian villages. The Government enacted a law, under the name of, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 whereby it says any adult who is willing to do unskilled manual work at the minimum wage is entitled to being employed on local public works within 15 days of applying.

Importantly, it laid guidelines providing room for “unemployment allowance” in which case - if employment is not provided within 15 days, the applicant is entitled to an unemployment allowance – of at least one fourth of the minimum wage for the first 30 days and at least one half of the minimum wage thereafter. So much has been the success rate of the NREGA in the last five years that there is little to dispute that the Act has helped a substantial Indian population during the last few months despite economic meltdown. There are statistics and surveys to suggest that NREGA has helped those undergoing reverse migration from urban and major metros to rural areas.

Among other things, NREGA has able to achieve substantial results in the field of reducing distress and seasonal migration. The Union Rural Development Minister Dr C P Joshi has said that the NREGA has also helped the rural and semi-urban people and NREGA workers in particular in “increasing” their purchasing power. It has to be taken in that context that the Finance Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee remained focussed on Aam Admi and announced a slew of provisions for inclusive development in the budget for 2009-10 and gave a major push to the rural development projects.

Raising the flagship scheme NREGA by whopping 144 per cent to Rs 39,100 crore, he said a key challenge remains to broaden the agenda for inclusive development and to ensure that no individual, marginalized community or region is denied the fruits of development. Officials say under NREGA, as many as 4.49 crore households have been provided employment in 2008-09 and 216 crore person days of employment have been generated. In fiscal, 2009-10 up to July, Rs 2.53 crore households have been provided work and 87.09 crore person days have been generated.

Renaming NREGA

A decision to rename NREGA after Mahatma Gandhi was taken at a meeting of the Union Cabinet on October 1. The next day at a function at the gracious Vigyan Bhawan in the capital to rename NREGA as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGREGA), the Prime Minister also rightly launched a year-long Year of Gram Sabha. In his speech, the Prime Minister said that the government move to rename the NREGA is only a “humble tribute” to the Father of the Nation on his 140th birth anniversary. The Union Minister for Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, Dr Joshi said it is the need of the hour for the Panchayati Raj institutions to play a pro-active role in the developmental process.

Gandhian Thought

A key emphasis of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy about governance has been the task of ensuring the inclusive growth. This is precisely an area the where old name NREGA, has provided employment particularly for marginalized groups. The participation percentages were 55 per cent (Scheduled caste /Scheduled Tribe) in 2008-09 and 53 per cent (SC/ST) up to July, 2009 are yardsticks to measure this. Officials also say that the women workforce participation has also surpassed the statutory minimum requirement of 33 per cent. In financial year, 2008-09, women participation was 48 per cent which has increased to 52 per cent up to July this year.

Fast Forward

The Act is doing extremely well so far. However, there have been instances of certain hurdles in implementation.. In the words of Dr Joshi himself, “so many ideas are being formulated and plans made for implementation of NREGA, but panchayats which are implementing it, have no proper place to do so”. This has been rightly addressed with the Government announcing setting up Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendras in all 2.5 lakh panchayats of the country in the next three years. “These would act as mini-secretariats for NREGA projects implementation,” the minister said.

The Government has also rightly started a consultation process with the Minister Dr Joshi himself meeting a cross section of political leaders. After such a meeting he said the government is working hard to address what had been mentioned in the President’s speech to Parliament on ensuring transparency in NREGA. Several regional parties have also suggested that the Centre should expand the scope of newly named Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act by including new types of work under it and ensure more transparency and accountability in its implementation.

The greatest strength of democracy is that under this system of governance, the people are the masters of the destiny and also of their own developmental works. This is one thing, Mahatma Gandhi had always underlined.
The rural Indian population, their welfare and the improvement in agriculture and rural India’s other facets were close to his heart. India always lives in villages and still it is a rural-based society. Yet, in a fast changing world and pressure of urbanization has often led hundreds off the fields taking them away from the villages. Perhaps going back to the field would be a difficult proposition for many Indians, but the Government’s target of improving rural living conditions is worth appreciating. Well, the MGREMA that way is a good instrument of change!

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of PIB



**Freelance Writer


PIB Aizawl

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