Friday, November 06, 2009

Cash transfer versus NREGS

NREGS, the national employment scheme, drew a lot of flak when it was first introduced. It has since received some grudging credit and its critics have at least recognised the value of the fiscal stimulus it has provided.

The standard argument against NREGS, which is also the argument against subsidies, is that it is better to make transfers to a carefully targeted segment, namely, the BPL category. If you spend Rs 100 on the NREGS, Rs 20 will be siphoned off, Rs 30 will be spent on administration, Rs 20 on materials, which will be wasted because of poor quality of works, and only Rs 30 will reach the poor as wages. Far better to transfer Rs 30 to designated accounts.

Tushaar Shah addresses this argument in an article in TOI.

The NREGS launch in 2006 had created a widespread impression in many parts of rural India that it would eventually end up as a cash transfer programme. Many people believed the job card-holder household would be entitled to an annual cash transfer of Rs 10,000. This is why numerous well-off households and local bigwigs, including village sarpanchs, acquired them.

NREGS design - guaranteeing 100 days' unskilled manual work toany household, rich or poor, willing to do such work - minimises type II error. Even if the rich acquire job cards, they can benefit from NREGS only if they are ready to do unskilled manual work, which they are generally not. NREGS self-targets the needy. The BPL card, ration card and NREGS job card under cash-transfer denote entitlement, not what their holders do. That NREGS reduces type II error is evident in the fact the number of households registering for work that is much smaller than that of job card-holders. Again many NREGS projects remain unfinished and funds are returned because those who registered for work do not show up. This would hardly be the case if all job card-holders were automatically entitled to Rs 10,000 deposited in their accounts.
There you have it: cash transfers would amount to looting by the powerful in the countryside. Those who advocate it have no clue as to how things work in the countryside. Shah concedes that poor quality of works is an issue. But this needs to be addressed through better governance. Indeed, that is an argument I would make for NREGS, that by mobilising NGOs and other agents at the grassroots level, it becomes a powerful tool for improving governance.

One aspect of NREGS is that the access to information on the scheme is superior to what would be provided under the RTI Act. To make NREGS-based works worthwhile, we have to bring about greater accountability at the grassroots. It is a challenge, of course, but the effort is worth it, quite apart from the purchasing power it confers on the poor.


Sree said...

"...To make NREGS-based works worthwhile, we have to bring about greater accountability at the grassroots". Professor, how do we make everybody accountable? Corruption has been eating out our country's prosperity for so long and that is biggest hurdle for us to become a developed nation, I believe.

Can we attain 100% traceability & transparency in entire financial transactions across India, whether it is salary payment or sale of a car or purchase of groceries.

Kindly share your opinion on "Replacing hard cash system with digital currency"

T T Ram Mohan said...

Sree, How to bring about greater accountability is a challenge, of course. But the effort has to be made and is being made. This will involve mobilisation of those at the grassroots and instruments such as the RTI Act must be part of the effort.

I can't see how replacing cash with digital currency will address the problem of the powerful appropriating benefits. Self-selection through actual work, as in NREGS, is a better idea.


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