MNREGA and community power structure
Several rural development programmes were initiated in India during 1950s and 1960s. These programmes, popularly known as community development programmes, regarded rural people as beneficiaries but not participants in the development process. They were centrally designed and were implemented by extension agents using a top-down mode of decision-making. Those agents virtually had no knowledge of local conditions and the training either of the agents or the beneficiaries was inadequate. Consequently, due to the factors like legal barriers, lack of access to resources, gender discrimination in various spheres and traditional power structures, much of the benefits of the programmes were absorbed by the better-off sections of the rural communities. Taking into consideration the loopholes of earlier programmes the UPA run central government of India has launched another rural development programme the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in 2005.
Later on, this programme is named after Mahatma Gandhi and now it is known as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For the first time in the history of post independence India the Gram Panchyats are directly involved in planning, implementation and social audit of MGNREGA. Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabha are responsible for identifying, approving, allocating, supervising, monitoring and are accountable for all works under MGNREGA in their respective areas. It is an Act to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas of the country by providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
Under MGNREGA, the law acknowledges people‟s right to seek work and stipulates that a worker is authorized to demand for work. In case of failure, on the part of the implementing agency to provide work within 15 days of their demand the workers do keep the right to demand unemployment allowance, compensation up to Rs.3000 and imposition of penalties. Thus scheme is a revolutionary demand-driven and people oriented development approach. The choice of works seeks to address the causes of chronic poverty such as drought, deforestation, soil erosion, flood, and so on. MGNREGA is thus touted as a “People‟s Act” in several senses.
MGNREGA programme has made an effort to improve the people‟s participation level in decision making process to the evaluation process through the provision of Right to Information Act, social audit and the Gram Sabha which are indeed unique platforms for the villagers to raise their voice and monitor the working of the programme. For the purpose, the bottom-up participatory approach of development has been adopted where; the Gram Panchayat is the nodal agency at bottom level that has the authority to select, design and implement 50 per cent of the works. Accordingly, section 13(1) of MGNREGA mandates that „Panchayats at the district, intermediate and village levels will be the principal authorities for planning and implementation of the schemes‟. Further empowering the Gram Panchayat, it stipulates that a minimum of 50% of the funds and relevant works be executed by the Gram Panchayat.
To ensure that planning and works selected reflect the needs and priorities of the local citizens, section 16 (3) & (4) of the Act states that „every Gram Panchayat shall prepare a development plan and maintain a shelf of works.‟ This shelf of works is prepared on the basis of the recommendations of the Gram Sabha. Section 15(5) of the act lays down that the programme officer shall deal promptly with all the complaints that may arise in connection with the implementation of the scheme within the block, while section 23(6) stipulates that the programme officer shall enter every complaint in a complaint register maintained by him and shall dispose of the disputes and complaints within seven days of its receipt. In case the complaints are related to the matters to be resolved by any other authority they shall be forwarded to the concerned authority (Rohtagi 2009). Active participation of the beneficiaries in the grievance redressed system can help the programme to be more transparent and accountable and thereby reduce the level of corruption. Building on the provision of right to information act, the MGNREGA stipulates that all information requests related to the MGNREGA be made available to the applicant within 7 days as opposed to the stipulated 30 days in RTI Act. Section 17 of the Act mandates that regular social audits to be conducted in the Gram Sabha at least once in every six months. All these provisions are listed in the programme with an intension to achieve the goal of inclusive growth through active participation of the rural mass.
MGNREGA is such a rural development programme that envisaged the workers with the power to participate in the actual process of decision making through the enactment of provisions like works selection process, social audit and the grievance redressed system. With an objective to ensure that planning and selection of works reflect the needs and priorities of the local citizens; section 16 (3) & (4) of the Act states that „every Gram Panchayat shall prepare a development plan and maintain a shelf of works. „This shelf of works is prepared based on recommendations of the Gram Sabha. They are empowered to evaluate and monitor the programme through the platform like social audit and the grievance redressed system of the Act. Apart from these, the programme has envisaged the beneficiaries with other facilities like travel allowance, unemployment allowance and worksite facilities for the welfare of the workers. But these are going to benefit the participants only when they are aware of the existence of such provisions in MGNREGA. Hence an attempt has been made in this section to examine the level of awareness of the participants as well as of the non participants as it is felt that even the non-participants should be aware of at least some of the important provisions of MGNREGA as it is not only an employment generation programme but also an overall development programme of the village through asset creation, which benefit not only the participants but also the non participants in some indirect ways.
The Gram Sabha is the platform where all matters of concern are discussed between the panchayat members and the villagers. It is the institution that provides a space to the villagers and opportunity to voice their opinions. In MGNREGA also the Gram Sabha holds an important place. The success of this participatory approach of development depends on the active participation of the beneficiaries in the Gram Sabha. It is the place where all the MGNREGA workers and the panchayat members directly interact and discuss the issues relating to MGNREGA. Keeping in mind the importance of Gram Sabha, this section made an attempt to evaluate the level of participation of the respondents in the Gram Sabha.