The Telegraph
Sunday , June 22 , 2014
CIMA Gallary

Bengal ‘boost’ for job scheme critics

- Implementation below 30% at a time NREGA efficacy is under cloud

Calcutta, June 21: The Bengal government finished only 29.05 per cent of the projects sanctioned under the central 100-day rural job scheme in 2013-14, the state’s worst-ever performance calling into question the efficacy of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in creating assets.

Senior state government officials blamed poor planning and paucity of funds for the tardy progress of implementing projects.

The project-completion figure, available with the Union rural development ministry, makes it clear that although the Mamata Banerjee government claims to have spent more than Rs 5,000 crore under the NREGA and generated more than 22 man-days (a unit of one day’s work done by one person) per family this fiscal, it has failed to create assets in rural areas.

The Left Front government used to complete around 80 per cent of the projects in a year, sources said.

Panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee told The Telegraph today: “The projects will be completed this year and there is nothing to get worried.”

A senior government official said the state had “given jobs and ensured cash” for the rural populace in the past one year but “it is true that not much assets could be created despite spending such a huge amount”.

“This could land us in trouble in future as the Centre keeps track of completion of projects while releasing funds for new ones,” he added.

The Bengal government’s handling of projects under the NREGA could prompt critics of the scheme to mobilise opinion against it.

“The biggest criticism of NREGA is its failure to create assets despite such heavy spending. The performance of the Bengal government will strengthen the arguments of the critics,” the official said.

The UPA government’s flagship project is under the scanner because some economists have said it has contributed to the price spiral in the country. Besides the failure to create assets and the lack of sustainability of projects, these economists believe, the NREGA has fuelled inflation by increasing the buying power of the rural populace.

Now if it is established beyond doubt that the scheme has failed to create assets, it will be another blow to the NREGA.

Senior state government officials said the nature of the projects mostly taken up under the NREGA made the timing of completion crucial. If projects such as developing rural roads, renovating water tanks, developing land and refurbishing embankments are not completed before monsoon, the work done is destroyed by rain. In such cases, the projects have to be taken up afresh the next year, resulting in wastage of money. There is no guarantee that the Centre would release funds for the same project more than once.

A Bengal panchayat department official said: “In the 2013-14 financial year, the state had taken up several rural connectivity projects but they could not be completed. In Bengal, we usually start projects after October and try to complete them by March, but this could not be done this time.”

The Bengal government has taken up double the number of projects this year than last year, as a result of which most of the plans could not be implemented. Lack of proper planning hobbled implementation, the officials said.

“Trinamul won more than 70 per cent of the gram panchayats last year. In order to give work to maximum number of people under the 100-day job scheme, the panchayats began many projects. But as the projects were not properly planned, they could not be completed,” a panchayat department official said.

The unfinished projects cost the state dear. If projects remain incomplete in a season and get washed away in rain, the state loses the opportunity to create assets. Moreover, the Centre can refuse to allot funds afresh for a project that has been destroyed, officials said, expressing fears that cash flow under the NREGA could be affected.

Anisur Rahman, the panchayat minister in the erstwhile Left government, said the abysmal implementation rate pointed to lack of proper monitoring. “If only 29.05 per cent of the projects taken up this year have been completed, it is a cause for concern. It means there is something wrong with the system,” the CPM MLA said.

Dibyendu Sarkar, the Bengal NREGA commissioner, said many workers could not be paid last year because of lack of funds.

“Until wages are cleared, we cannot show a project as completed. We are yet to clear last year’s wage dues to the tune of Rs 750 crore. Once we pay the amount, the completion rate will be higher,” he said.

But panchayat department officials said even if the wage dues were cleared and some more projects were shown as finished, the figure would not cross 40 per cent.