In the last few months they have been many discussions arguing that the quality of works in NREGA is poor, and the charge has been led by the Minister for Rural Development himself. Without doubt, NREGA is capable of creating better and more durable assets that would be of tremendous value to our society, and without doubt this potential has been underutilised. But then, who exactly wants NREGA to be productive?
NREGA has two important goals: to provide employment at minimum wages and to build socially useful assets. There is an active pressure from labourers and their allies in civil society to get their share of employment and full wages (of course, this is not always successful, but at least there is a force pushing towards this goal). But there is no such pressure to materialize the goal of building durable social assets.
It is assumed in NREGA that when Gram Sabhas select projects, they will choose those projects that are most socially useful. There is logic in this, but unfortunately merely identifying useful projects does not take us far enough. Planning sound projects and getting them done involves a variety of challenges. For example, some watershed projects might require certain inputs like black cotton soil that may not be provided for administratively within NREGA. It does not take much to include this and provide of all essential materials within the scope of the project, but it does need some agency that identifies such needs and demands them. Unfortunately, I feel that there is very little social will in our country either among the public, administration or social movements to generate this much needed will.
Since NREGA can be useful in taking up watershed projects, I used to imagine that at least farmers will demand that NREGA is used to build sound assets for water management. The farmers I met during my fieldwork in Tamil Nadu were so against NREGA for its impact on labour costs (and perhaps cynical that government projects could build useful social assets) that they were not actively demanding any specific project. Many of them also told me that they do not care about maintenance of water bodies since they have bore wells that they can rely upon. This approach may work in the short run, but with rapidly depleting groundwater resources, it is bound to affect as not long from today.
If it is used to its potential, NREGA can contribute immensely to water management, afforestation, soil management and other pressing issues of our times. But these are unlikely to happen automatically unless there is an active pressure from some source to ensure this. There are of course some active voices here and there (e.g. Samaj Pragati Sahayog of Madhya Pradesh) but these voices are isolated and rare in the debates on NREGA. I fervently hope that at least in the context of drought we are facing today, we will generate a will in our society to use NREGA to its potential.