Mihir Shah Committee proposes new guidelines on MGNREGA: Some highlights

This article by Amita Bhaduri highlights the new set of guidelines under the MGNREGA scheme that has been unveiled by the Mihir Shah Committee recently

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) aims at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas by guaranteeing hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. A new set of guidelines has been unveiled by the Mihir Shah Committee recently. The draft submitted to the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Government of India aims at creation of durable assets, an increase in farm productivity, greater efficiency, overcoming major complaints such as delays in payments of wages and develops mechanisms to eliminate the scope of corruption under the programme.

The programme has been undergoing a number of changes since its inception. The highlight of these guidelines is the inclusion of new works under MNREGA. The programme scope would be enhanced by including more activities in the list of permissible works.

This was to strengthen the positive synergy between MGNREGA and agriculture & allied rural livelihoods, to respond to the demands of the States for greater location specific flexibility in permissible works and to help improve the ecological balance in rural India and to provide a cleaner, healthier environment for the rural population.

In the preface of the new guidelines, Jairam Ramesh notes that “since the programme marks a radical departure from earlier efforts of a similar kind, there have been many problems in infusing the system with the new culture of demand-driven, rights-based, decentralized decision making. The MGNREGA provides a historic opportunity for strengthening Panchayati Raj in India but the experience so far also alerts us to the need for doing much more in this direction.”

The highlights of the new guidelines include strengthening the demand-driven character of the programme, preparation of labour budget, strict time-schedules, adequate human resources, expanded list of permissible works, reducing delays in payments, greater role for civil society and strengthening social audits, vigilance and grievance redressal.

The additional list of permissible works under MGNREGA have been grouped as those related to watershed in mountainous/ plain area, agriculture, livestock, fishery, rural drinking water, rural sanitation and works in coastal areas.   

The new activities proposed for inclusion include rice cultivation using the system of rice intensification (SRI), soil conservation activities, production of manure and bio pesticides, construction of seed-storage bins and shelters for cattle and poultry. Developmental works such as rural water supply and sanitation, besides area-focused activities like fish drying yards and storm water drains for coastal areas have been included.

The guidelines make it mandatory for the Gram Panchayat or Programme Officer to accept applications for work on a continuous basis. Also refusal to accept applications and providing dated receipts has been stated to be a contravention of Section 25 of MGNREGA. 

The committee has also suggested ways to check payment delays and suggested that all payments under MGNREGA be made within 15 days and interim payments be allowed in cases where measurement of work has not been finished. Delay in payment should be considered a punishable offence under section 25 of the Act.

The committee guidelines note that an important cause for delay of wage payments is non-availability of sufficient funds at district/block/gram panchayat level, while in the others there is a surplus. The suggestion is that the States can adopt an integrated fund management system called eFMS (Electronic Fund Management System) under which the MGNREGS fund is a centrally pooled fund managed at State level. The users at the gram panchayat/ village level or Program Officer at Block level or DPC at district level throughout the State will have access to this pooled fund for making payments. This improves efficiency of the program on the whole and has a multiplier effect on timely delivery of wage payments.

It suggests preparation of a labour budget which includes an assessment of quantum and timing of demand for work as well as a shelf of projects to meet this demand in a timely manner. This would help opening work synchronized with the pattern of migration in an area so as to pre-empt distress migration. 

The committee suggests that instead of presenting Annual Plans for approval at the Gram Sabha on October 2, far too late to prevent distress migration of households, this should be done on August 15.

As per the new guidelines, citizens’ charter’ should be developed covering all aspects of the duties of Panchayats and officials under the Act. It should describe the specific steps involved in implementing the provisions of the Act, and lay down the minimum service levels mandated by these provisions on the Panchayats and the officers concerned.

Furthermore, the State Governments will formulate rules for grievance redressal. The guidelines suggest that the State Government has to establish the office of Ombudsman in districts for grievance redressal in a time bound manner.

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