People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 06, 2009

Changes in NREGA Required,

But in the Right Direction


Brinda Karat


THE National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is once again in the news, though for the wrong reasons. The arbitrary announcements of the Rural Development ministry of changes in the guidelines, has turned a requirement into a self-defeating exercise. Former members of the National Advisory Council like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and several of their colleagues who have been working in a sustained way on REGA, have strongly opposed many of the proposals made as also the methods adopted by the ministry. Their criticism of the ministry in trying to push through changes without discussion has much validity. For example, we suddenly learn on the birthday observance of the late prime minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi that Lok Sewaks are to be appointed in every village to implement REGA. Has any state government been consulted on this? The Central Advisory Council (CAC) mandated by law is being turned into a completely irrelevant body. The term of its non-official members is for one year. In January 2009, the term of many of its members including Kumar Shiralkar from the All India Agricultural Workers Union, Subhashini Ali from AIDWA and Annie Raja from NFIW was extended. However after the formation of the new government, they along with others have been dropped from the Council without even the courtesy of a letter informing them that new members are being appointed. On the other hand, in May, amendments were made to the rules governing the CAC to include a representative of the PMO. Even five years after its adoption by parliament, the Act is implemented through its guidelines, since no Rules for the Act (except for the clause regarding appointment of CAC), have been framed. The executive has appropriated to itself powers to change the guidelines at will. This is a trend which will impact very negatively on the implementation of this important piece of social legislation. It is therefore necessary to ensure that rules are framed and placed before parliament, that the CAC does include representatives of mass organisations working on REGA and that parliament is taken into confidence on significant changes being proposed.


However the contention of the critics of the new proposals, that there should be no changes in the Act till it is fully and properly implemented is not in tune with the experience of the last four years of the implementation of the Act and is premised on a notion that there are no flaws or gaps in the Act or the guidelines. We cannot agree with this position. Changes are required particularly as far as workers are concerned. For example, reduction of productivity norms, or switch over to time rated from piece rated work; removal of the 100 day work limit particularly urgent in view of the drought ; job cards to individual members instead of family cards and other issues elaborated below. Even the changes notified by the government, though made without discussion should not be rejected outright, but modified to ensure compliance with REGA objectives.




The government has declared that 100 rupees will be the minimum wage under REGA which will be in operation for the next five years. Thus, even while increasing the wage, there is also a declared wage freeze. At a time of escalating prices of essential commodities ranging from 20 to 100 per cent, a wage freeze is unfair since the real wage is actually going down. The government should work out a link with the price index for agricultural workers to enable price rise compensation from time to time. The fact is that in most states, workers doing a full day�s work are still unable to earn a full minimum wage. Although the Act does give a choice between time rated and piece rated wages, every single state, under pressure from the centre, has linked its  implementation of the Act to piece rated wages, that is payments are made according to the work done. The impossibly high productivity norms in most states and the methods of measurement of work are fatal flaws that ensure that the average wage earned on most REGA worksites is well below the minimum wage. Under pressure from Left parties, workers movements and with the support of some sensitised officers, the centre did push state governments to undertake time and motion studies to revise productivity norms but because the base was extraordinarily high, in spite of a reduction in the norms, in most states, it remains a punishing schedule of work, well beyond the capacity of malnourished workers. Women who make up a large percentage of the workers in many states are the worst affected by the present regime of piece rated work. REGA must be reformed to ensure that humane work norms are adopted as the national standard included in the rules which can ensure that all workers earn a full minimum wage. The previous minister had also smuggled in a most objectionable amendment to the guidelines to increase the hours of work from eight hours to nine hours a day. This must be withdrawn. More attention must be given to changes in the implementation structure, such as staff requirements to ensure no time lag in work measurement. This leads to grave underestimation of work done which further deprives the workers of wages due to them.

The central government should also permit state governments to shift to a time-rated payment system as mentioned under the Act.

Linked to non-payment of minimum wages, is the problem of weak grievance redressal mechanisms. In this connection the good practices of some states can be included as a national norm through necessary amendments.




Another important change required is to ensure provision of at least 100 days a year of work to a nuclear family. The national average of work days provided is still less than half of the 100 days permitted and some states are lagging behind. But why is this so? Is it because these governments are callous and not interested in bringing relief to the poor in their states? Those who oppose changes believe it is so. Experience shows that the schematic nature of the list of work permissible in the Act is itself the cause for a lower generation of workdays. The CPI(M) had argued at the time of the drafting of the Act that the eight list of works permitted relating in the main to manual labour for earth digging should be made more flexible. At that time those who were dead against the Act on grounds that it was a free give away to the poor opposed the proposal to include the concept of inclusion of work related to the enhancement of the quality of life of the rural poor. In the name of producing tangible assets, the main work permitted is earth digging for water tanks, bunds etc. This may be beneficial in dry and arid zones like Rajasthan, but is extremely limiting in areas where there is intense use of land for cultivation and where the amount of common land available for such water harvesting projects is limited. After all how many tanks can be built in a village where there is little land to be had? In states where there are monsoons over several months little work can be offered under the present norms. The government has stubbornly refused to expand the nature of works permissible ignoring regional diversities. For example in terraced hilly land, it is very difficult to generate work under the schemes proposed in the present Act.  Women in hilly areas like Uttarakhand, spend hours climbing up dangerous rocky hillsides, collecting fodder and carrying the huge bundles back to their village. Projects under REGA could be worked out to pay women wages for this work which is fulfilling a social responsibility. There are many closed tea gardens in North Bengal. The state government had given a proposal to the centre to use REGA to pay workers to pluck the leaves. The scheme would have helped develop workers� cooperatives. But it was rejected. Even a scheme to make mud bricks was rejected. Even though a task force was set up to consider expansion of the work permissible, the approach is still over centralisation, not taking into account the requirements of the states. Changes are urgently required to make more flexible the list of works permitted under REGA taking into account region specific factors.




The works permissible list includes a clause suggested earlier by the West Bengal government to permit land development work etc. under REGA to land owned by SC/ST and land reform beneficiaries. In July 2009, the central government issued a notification extending this clause to include the land of small and marginal farmers under REGA. This has been objected to by the activists mentioned above and also several NGOs. Their apprehension is that this will divert the major focus away from poor rural labour and will deprioritise their needs.


In February 2009, the Kisan Sabha had earlier made the demand for inclusion of small and marginal farmers. Several members of parliament belonging to different political parties have also raised it. The government notification meets this demand. However the notification does require correction and clarifications to prevent it from being misused as a means of providing labour to well off farmers at government expense.


Some of these corrections/ clarifications required in the guidelines include (1) the definition used to categorise poor and marginal farmers based on that of the central debt waiver relief scheme is problematic and cannot be accepted as it does not differentiate between irrigated and non-irrigated land. Thus, while adivasi farmers in Nasik and Vidarbha holding more than five acres of unirrigated land were excluded  from the debt relief scheme even though they are in the category of poor peasants, the better off small farmers of Western Maharashtra holding five acres of irrigated land were beneficiaries of the debt relief scheme. This injustice should not be imported into REGA and differentiation for the purpose of inclusion in REGA must be made between types of landholdings. (2) Work on this category of farmers should exclude recurring expenditure on agricultural/cultivation work. The provision for SC/ST landholdings includes horticulture plantations. Instead of a blanket extension for horticulture on land of small and marginal farmers, a list should be drawn up with state specific factors. A well-off farmer owning vineyards in Maharashtra would be in a different financial category than the SC/ST small landowner. On the other hand replanting of coconut trees on small house sites in Kerala if included under REGA could be hugely helpful for lakhs of poor households who cannot afford the expense. (3)  Land development work on these farms must be included in the shelf of projects of the village and implemented and work measured through the gram sabha and the panchayat as is done with other work and not viewed as an individual landowner�s right. Village level projects like contour bunding, planting trees on bunds, reclaiming uncultivated land, digging small ponds can be expanded to include benefits to small holdings. (4) As with SC/ST farmers those on whose land development is being done, must have job cards and also work on the project.

From this perspective it only means that the benefits of REGA and thereby state subsidies expand to include other needy sections like small and marginal farmers. There should not be any competition for funds because the law itself is demand driven. Looking at the huge subsidies given to the corporates, calculated by P Sainath to work out to 700 crore rupees a day in the last two years, the extension of a subsidy to small and marginal farmers need not conflict in any way with the core requirements of the Act. Indeed it can be argued that at the present juncture when these sections are among the worst affected by drought, the government must and should extend REGA to help them.




The other contentious proposal is for convergence with other developmental works. Although it does make sense to dovetail projects for rural development, the main problem arises because of the 100 days work limitation per family under REGA. Thus at present one member of a family may be working on a construction site for a particular department and the other on a REGA worksite. Under convergence their work days would be pooled and they would be unable to get more than 50 days each. Convergence could also lead to loss of wages for workers particularly on construction sites because many workers are getting more than the REGA minimum wage which would lead to reduction. On the other hand some departments have even higher productivity norms and thus lower wages. Convergence should not mean that a regime of lower wages in the name of conformity should be allowed. Convergence thus should be implemented very strictly within REGA norms such as maintaining the present ratio between expenditure on material costs and labour costs,  to ensure the exclusion of contractors and machines, the productivity and payment norms, to name a few. Apprehensions that convergence would lead to a dilution of the rights under REGA are real and therefore utmost caution is required when this is implemented. The rules for convergence must be framed taking all this into consideration

But one of the first priorities in convergence is to remove the 100 day limit, to give job cards to individuals not family members and to use convergence to increase the total number of work days available.




The amendment to include a representative of the PMO directly in the CAC is an indication of the centralisation efforts of the government. The declaration of Lok Sevaks is an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the states and presents a fait accompli. States already have their own structures. If there are to  be any additions the states must be consulted before, not after such a decision. It has also been declared that the centre will pay for a bhavan in every village to be named the Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan. This is a blatant attempt to politicise the programme in a narrow partisan way and will surely lead to objection from the states.


Changes in REGA are urgently required but to strengthen the Act not to dilute or to divert its main thrust. We want inclusion of small and marginal farmers, we do feel that convergence is rational, but not in the way being proposed. Instead of taking unilateral actions, it would be preferable for the government to place the issues before parliament as also to take into account differing opinions  based on direct experiences of the states before pushing through amendments which will do more damage than good.