Water projects get priority in MGNREGA amidst COVID-19

Efforts needed to better utilise MGNREGA funds to deter vested interests from misappropriating.
Work in progress at an MGNREGA site (Image: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh) Work in progress at an MGNREGA site (Image: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh)

Lockdown in April to May 2020 due to COVID-19 led to the mass migration of workers from the cities to villages. Despite strict measures by the government to stop any movement, people facing lost jobs and high cost of living in the cities began to walk back or use whatever transportation was available to travel to their home villages. After resuming Shramik Express trains, the migration increased manifold, and all state governments started preparing to provide livelihoods for villagers returning home. The central and state governments started transferring funds to gram panchayats so that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) could be launched immediately.

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh witnessed the maximum amount of interstate migration (per data of state government) in the period April to June 2020. About 28 lakhs migrants have returned to Bihar and 32 lakhs migrants returned to Uttar Pradesh (UP). Hence it would be appropriate to discuss and analyze data of expenses incurred and job creation through MGNREGA in these states. As Rs. 1,01,500 crores have been allocated in the MGNREGA for 2020–21, it will be pertinent to see if how public accountability mechanisms, such as social audits, are working in these states.

UP and Bihar started preparing for providing work through MGNREGA to migrants as they began arriving in their native places in May to June 2020. The UP government started work under natural resources management, such as deepening of ponds and rejuvenation works, in nearly twenty-two rivers in a big way under MGNREGA.

An analysis of workwise category of estimated costs in UP during April to June 2020 showed that 75 percent of MGNREGA funds were allocated for natural resources management (water conservation, irrigation, and water bodies) and 20 percent of funds were used for the development of individual assets for vulnerable sections. A similar analysis for Bihar showed that 83 percent of MGNREGA funds were allocated for natural resources management, especially flood management, and 12 percent of funds were used for the development of individual assets for vulnerable sections. This demonstrates that work prioritization has been quite appropriate and relevant to the needs of the community in the two states.

The next important question is whether MGNREGA has been able to provide employment to the huge number of migrants in both states. The work-demand pattern for Bihar shows that 8.65 lakhs more people worked in May 2020 than in May 2019; while in UP, a whopping 49.78 lakhs more persons worked in May 2020 than in May 2019. For June 2020, the increase in persons who worked was 13.71 lakhs in Bihar and 70 lakhs in UP.

The employment of nearly 10 million people in works related to water in the two states will certainly boost water conservation efforts which will yield good result in future.  The scheme is no doubt providing employment to migrants who had shifted in huge numbers to these two states.

The expenditure in MGNREGA work for the period April 2020 to June 2020 has been Rs. 1,692 crores for Bihar and Rs. 3773 crores for Uttar Pradesh, testifying that government prioritization for MGNREGA works. However, the actual number of people working and being paid and the quality of assets being created can only be verified by government department audits and social audits.

While the ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India has created an application, AuditOnline, of the scheme to ensure accountability in utilization of funds in gram panchayat. But the social audit process required support and guidance in gram panchayats. Though the Directorate of Social Audit, UP, has issued a format for social audit, how this process should be carried out in present challenging times needs clarity.

In the year 2020-21, only five of 58,906 gram panchayats in Uttar Pradesh have been able to conduct social audits, and only 13 percent of the works have been verified. Thus gram panchayats are facing tremendous difficulties in conducting social audits in the current financial year. In Bihar, no gram panchayat, out of 8,530 gram panchayats, has been able to facilitate a social audit in the FY 2020–21.

It is time to work out appropriate mechanisms for social audits in the new scenario, so that huge amounts of money and work do not go unverified by people. Gram Sabha and Jun Sunwais may not be feasible for at least a year due to restriction of COVID-19. The possible mechanisms for social audits can be online and offline tools with the option of uploading on the portal of the department of rural development of the state government. The availability of smartphones and network connectivity will be an issue in some areas, but forming social audit teams consisting of youth, especially migrants from cities, community leaders, and Self Help Groups can be the starting point for social audit exercise. The resource person of the social audit unit of the states will be a key link to coordinate between members of gram panchayats and the social audit team. The social audit team can record the information related to social audit offline and upload them when they are in connectivity zone.

Options for carrying out the social audit in these challenging times -

  • Transparency in sharing MGNREGA details: All important information related to the scheme must be exhibited in common places in the gram panchayat. Some community leaders, youth groups, and SHG should check its compliance by gram panchayats and report any noncompliances in the recording during the social audit.
  • Physical verification of assets: Social audit team with guidance from the resource person can carry out physical verifications of assets after intimating gram panchayats. They should click photos, make videos, and upload them on the government portal.
  • Review and documentary analysis: The social audit team can review the documents of MGNREGA, namely income, expenditure, muster rolls, and payments, to analyze if the money can be spent for the right purposes. They can record the group’s opinions and post on the website of social audit society/unit.
  • Opinions of SHGs and women-elected representatives: Voices of women-elected representatives and SHGs members should have separate space, and they should record their opinions on the issues, such as the number of women getting employment, regular payment, and needs of women being addressed by asset creation in the villages.
  • Video recording and uploading of ward-level meetings: Social audit teams, especially youth groups, community leaders, and SHGs, can mobilize villagers for attending ward-level small meetings with social distancing in the areas from where large numbers of workers work for the MGNREGA. In this meeting, the findings of the social audit team should be shared. The sarpanch and other panchayat functionaries should facilitate the exercise. Sarpanch will share the details of expenditures, money received, and workers employed on the sites. Oral evidence of villagers on the number of assets created, quality of assets and issues related to employment and payment can be recorded and uploaded on the platform created by the social audit society/unit of the state. Efforts should be made to cover four wards in a day so that 25 percent of the village population is covered.

The critical question is the cooperation of the sarpanch in the social audit being led by a newly constituted social audit team. The resistance of the sarpanch to the entry of new groups, viz. youth and SHGs, can be addressed with the appropriate guidelines of social audit society/unit in each state. The presence of resource persons of social audit society during the social audit can neutralize the vested interests in gram panchayat as s/he can report the issue to the society.

Social audit society should also issue instructions/orders on how social audit processes should be carried in the gram panchayat in the context of constraints on public gatherings due to COVID-19.

The social audit society of the state government should refurbish their websites and create platforms for social audits in the new context. At present, these websites are in a very nascent stage. The society should collate and compile the data of social audits of the gram panchayats and forward them to the Department of Rural Development. All these efforts can pave the way for better utilization of MGNREGA funds, build the capacity of villagers to use online platforms, and deter vested interests from appropriating the funds.

 

Vikas Jha is Director, Good Rural Governance, Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon. He is a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Policy Studies from the University of London. He has eighteen years of professional experience in the development sector.

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