Wrong narrative: Push of digitalization has solved MGNREGA corruption

Mayank Prakash*

The story of modern India is one for the history books. The world’s largest democracy has had an impressive rise from being a colonial-ruled third-world country to one of the influencers on a global arena. Much change has been brought about by the shift in ideologies, from socialism to communism to today’s prevalent capitalism. Despite the rapid leaps in the last 75 years post-independence, the country is still plagued by numerous fundamental problems like poverty, iniquitous wealth & resources distribution.

We met Ashish Ranjan, an activist from Kamayani, Bihar. He is one of the founders of a Union named Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan. He has been one of the key active voices for the implementation of the MGNREGA Act. With his experiences in life, coming from Bihar, one of the poorest states in the country, he has lost his confidence in capitalism theory of development. He says, “I have seen from very close quarters how all the capitalism and liberalization policies of the country have failed to uplift Bihar from all the problems of the world.” Capitalism, he says, fails to solve the problem because they always result in crony capitalism after a point in time. Add to that the entrenched caste, creed, social and economic classes, the state of Bihar is deeply divided. Capitalism has aggrieved the stark wealth and social level differentiation even more. He finds socialism an appropriate way of solving the problems of the bottom of the pyramid citizens.

His inspirations range from Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Lohia, and several other prominent leaders who shaped the country over time. He connects the vision of modern India with its realities to identify the gaps which need to be filled. “Policy, execution, and activism combinedly will help guide the country towards the right direction,” Ashish says. He then decides to do his bit to fix the country by working on the MNREGA scheme. His work at MGNREGA began in 2008 when he surveyed the renowned economist and activist Jean Dreze to evaluate all six Hindi-speaking states, including Bihar. At that time, the investigation results were brought to the people of Patna, and Jan Jagran Abhiyan, who later became Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan. It began to mobilize people and educate them about the plan’s operation and the program’s rights. In addition, it is also committed to various campaigns on the “Right to Information Law” and the “Right to Food Law” nationwide. He is the national coordinator of an organization called the National People’s Movement League. In the past few years, he has also worked to improve the status of disadvantaged groups in society.

Taking the example of the MNREGA scheme, he highlighted how this program had emerged as the single most effective and helpful program for Indian masses during the COVID crisis, which hit the world. It went from being the scheme branded as a failure by the country’s incumbent prime minister to repeated budgetary increases in allocation to this program. It remains the single most hated program by governments across the board. It also remains undeniably the only employment scheme that directly benefits the unemployed poor and oppressed on such a massive scale. Despite the exceptional achievements of this program, political will has been lacking in implementing this program. Many regions in the country lack the necessary MGNREGA Commissioners, project management staff, and engineers. Recruitment of these posts remains bleak. Furthermore, a lot of employees are hired for part-time. Fund allocation rarely follows an in-depth need-based analysis, which leaves many potential impacts on the table.

One effect of poor political will in the implementation of the scheme is corruption. Ashish disagrees with the popular narrative that the recent push of digitalization has solved the problem. He says that Aadhaar integration with the beneficiaries’ bank accounts is a good step in the right direction. But it’s not enough; “In the end, a program needs people to run, it cannot be run by using just a set of non-living systems,” Ashish says. He highlighted how influences in a rural setting could falsely get the benefits despite the tech-heavy integration. Another effect of poor political will was the numerous inconsistencies in resolving the operational blockages. He says, during the 2020 mass migration of workers during COVID lockdowns, governments did not balance the health norms and guidelines with the financial requirements. Thus migrant workers were forced to sit at their homes for a month or more before regaining employment. The foresight and poor coordination of the health departments to the finance ministry were visible as independent policies were being rolled out urgently. Mass migration took place in May, and infrastructural jobs in rural India were not propped up in time. People died en masse due to hunger and related diseases due to it. During the integration of Aadhaar with MNREGA and bank accounts with PAN Cards, minor errors like name mismatch and address mismatch resulted in long tiring disbursements in pay. This further resulted in the loss of income and employment opportunities. Moreover, the demand and supply mismatch resulted in workers working, but the cash disbursement being released at the beck and call of the governments taking their own sweet time. Such a sluggish and bureaucratic approach has long and irreversible socio-economic consequences for the underprivileged group of people.

Solving these myriads of problems is challenging, as we have seen Ashish do for a long time. He says, “It is the only feasible long-term method of ensuring desirable output in the big machinery of India. Fast progress will come when policies are discussed by people in parliament, coffee houses, gyms, and other social settings. People’s involvement is necessary to push the leaders and the stakeholders for more accountability, better professional handling, and rigorous policy-making and ideological clarity. The message was loud and clear. People need to get more context around these social problems and then start doing what needs to be done in their capacity.

*Second year MBA student, IIM-Ahmedabad

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