There is always a dilemma in wage employment programmes on whether they should focus on creating employment or creating assets. So far most attention in NREGA has been on creating employment and the programme is rightly criticised for not producing useful and lasting assets. Among those I know, Mihir has focussed on quality issues more than anyone else, and he has excellent hands-on experience in creating watershed projects using labour intensive programmes.
Mihir has argued that creating lasting assets needs detailed planning, where we have to take into account topography, rainfall patterns, social issues and other information. A remarkable handbook produced by his team outlines this process for watershed projects. They point out that while this project takes time and thought, required skills can be taught to anyone using simple techniques. Following this broad approach he wrote in a recent article in The Hindu:
…strengthening the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) by providing them requisite technical and social human resource so that plans can be made and implemented genuinely bottom-up. Without a cadre of social mobilisers or lok sewaks (at least one in every village), it is difficult to convert NREGA into a truly demand-driven programme, where works are undertaken in response to the needs and aspirations of a fully aware citizenry.
I agree with his emphasis for creating a pool of workers who are trained in order to make NREGA productive and I think there should be at least one worker in each Panchayat who focuses mainly on implementing NREGA. But, as far as sound planning goes, I doubt if appointing trained people in Panchayats will be of help, for the following reasons:
(1) Panchayats are typically starved of workers and even if a person is appointed exclusively for NREGA, I fear that her efforts will go into other Panchayat work. (Perhaps this is based on my experience in Tamil Nadu where Panchayat presidents do not like NREGA for complex set of reasons).
(2) There is little commitment today for productivity of NREGA. This is true of government, activists, and sadly even farmers who can benefit from NREGA works. If we create capacity for planning sound works, I think we should vest with an agency that is committed to quality. This can be done by creating nodal agencies that work exclusively in creating a shelf of works for each Panchayat. This could be done in a campaign mode in the model of Total Literacy Movement and hopefully such a campaign will make it a public issue and will help in creating a commitment for productivity in the society at large.
(3) It would be easier to organise some resources like rainfall data, topographic materials, etc. at a nodal centre than to do it in each Panchayat. Further, it would be useful to have a set of people in each region who take a macro view of the situation.
I prefer a model of setting up a nodal team that is well equipped with personnel and information, who will work with Panchayats in coming up with plans that can be automatically approved by the administration. This process will take time and will still require a lot of resources – but it will be resources well spent that we will appreciate for a long time to come.