"THE National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been a subject of lively debate in the past two years or so. Unfortunately, the factual basis of this debate has been, so far, rather thin. This has made it possible for extremist positions to flourish without being put to the test of careful evidence. While the Act is regularly pilloried in the corporate-sponsored media as an "expensive gravy train" (as a former Chief Economic Adviser described it), the government gets away with extravagant claims of success.Fortunately, the scope for informed analysis is rapidly growing as reports are beginning to pour in from various parts of the country. "
The rest of the piece consists of fairly close analysis of the statistics available on the NREGA website maintained by the Ministry of Rural Development. The authors note that the website and the data it provides have problematic aspects, but parse it nevertheless to come to interesting conclusions about the relative progress achieved in different states. Some of these would appear to go against conventional wisdom, such as the following bit:
"Is NREGA doing better in States ruled by particular political parties? No obvious pattern emerges in this respect. Nevertheless there is a hint that, if any national political party is taking the NREGA seriously, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indeed, among the major States, the four best performers in terms of employment generation under NREGA are Rajasthan, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all of which, except Assam, had BJP governments in 2006-07. As it happens, Assembly elections are due relatively soon in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. One wonders whether active implementation of the NREGA in these States is part of a deliberate electoral strategy of the BJP. It would be a cruel irony if the BJP were to reap the political benefits of a programme initially championed by the Congress and the Left parties."
This is how the authors conclude:
"It would be naive to think that the long history of fraud in public works programmes has already come to an end. But recent experience shows that it is possible to remove mass corruption from NREGA. This calls for strict implementation of the transparency safeguards, as well as firm action whenever corruption is exposed. In these simple steps lies the future of the Act, and of all those for whom it is a new ray of hope."