New Delhi, Dec. 25: The Centre has announced sweeping changes in rural employment scheme NREGA ahead of next summer’s elections, promising family members of job cardholders more benefits and faster payments besides including new projects.
Most changes are aimed at reducing payment delays, described by beneficiaries and activists as the bane of the UPA’s showcase welfare plan.
A highlight of the revamp is a plan to engage a family member of an NREGA worker as a “barefoot engineer” — assessors who will get into the nitty-gritty of measuring work that has gone into projects such as digging canals or building embankments. The measurement determines payments.
The plan has been prompted by a shortage of junior engineers in blocks — from where they go to villages to evaluate NREGA projects — that leads to delays in payments.
Under the new rules, workers will also be entitled to compensation of 0.05 per cent on unpaid amounts if the delay is over 15 days.
Another key change is that the scheme’s funds can be used to build public toilets, with a cap of Rs 10,000 for each. Sanitation had so far been covered under specific projects, not NREGA.
Rural development secretary L.C. Goyal said the measures were aimed at checking delays.
Payments could so far be made only after work was measured by junior engineers, who looked at several factors such as the number of people and duration required for a project.
But villages often don’t have such experts. This, activist Nikhil Dey said, delays assessments and wages, often up to six months. “The delay in payments is directly linked to the delay in measurement. Now, if the government plans to equip family members of NREGA workers with such skills, it is welcome.”
A panchayat can select an educated person from the family of an NREGA worker and provide training. “They will be paid like skilled workers,” Goyal, the rural development secretary, said.
Such assessors will be paid from the 6 per cent of the scheme’s budget earmarked for administrative expenses, including measurements.
The changes also offer workers a cash cushion for delays. The NREGA Act provides for compensation for late payments but they are rare because state governments hardly ever acknowledge delays officially.
“The process of getting compensation involves moving a labour court. Poor workers do not want to get into litigation,” Dey said.
Under the revised guidelines, workers need not move any court.
They will get the extra 0.05 per cent automatically. This will be recovered from the official responsible for the delay, said Goyal.
Dey said the amount was too little. But T. Haque, director of the NGO Council of Social Development, welcomed the new measures. “They are likely to improve implementation,” Haque said.