The initiation and countrywide implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) represents a milestone in social policy and employment creation with its right based approach and focus on livelihood security. The flagship program has benefitted millions of marginalized rural households by providing them unskilled work and led to prevention of stress migration from rural areas in lean agricultural seasons. A UNDP/Carnegie Endowment for Peace  study points out that from the scheme’s first year of operation in 2006-2007 till 2010-2011, job creation accelerated from less than 1 billion workdays distributed amongst 20 million households to 2.5 billion workdays for 50 million households.
In the above context, the 2013 performance audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) should be a timely opportunity to analyze the immense management and convergence challenges that a program of MGNREGA’s size poses. This is especially relevant in view of CAG’s observation that undertaking of non permissible works, non completion of works and lack of creation of durable assets during the period 2007-2012 indicated that the poorest were not able to fully exercise their rights under the program.
One of the ‘bottom up’ features’ of the program is its reliance on rural local self government structures i.e. Panchayati Raj Institutions  (PRIs) to reinvigorate community driven participation and decision making in service delivery. The first key institutional challenge, therefore, is to make MGNREGA’S program implementation effective by enforcing PRI ‘activity mapping’ (unbundling subjects into smaller units of work and assigning these units to different levels of government) that was set in motion after the historic 73rd Constitutional Amendment, 1993 . Herein, the Central Government and the States of the Union, have to jointly actualize the principle of subsidiarity- what can be best done at lower levels of government should not be centralized at higher levels. Empowering PRIs especially Gram Panchayats (last mile units in villages) with funds, functions and functionaries (3F’s) is a critical incentive to build their institutional capacity for service delivery. This, in turn, would provide them the teeth to carry out their core responsibilities under MGNREGA such as planning of works, registration of beneficiaries, allotting employment, executing works, making timely payments, maintaining records of measurement and muster rolls.
In the backdrop of CAG’s observation, what is thus needed to be pushed and scaled aggressively by the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj  is the Accountability Incentive Scheme (PEAIS) that measures the “Devolution Index” in various states for macro parameters such as setting up of State Election Commissions and Decentralized Planning Committees. Infact, this Index should also take up rigorous monitoring of unbundling of each functional sector through mapping to a level of disaggregation that is consistent with devolution at the Gram Panchayat level. In this context, Kerala is an example of a province in India that has mapped and assigned activities and sub activities by legislation to Gram Panchayats. For instance, responsibilities in areas of agricultural extension, watershed management, soil conservation and management of assets have been detailed for the Gram Panchayat, Block Panchayat, District Panchayat, Municipal Corporation and the State Headquarters separately.
The Constitution of India (Eleventh Schedule-Article 243G)  mandates assignment of 29 subjects to Gram Panchayats through such activity mapping. These subjects include sectors such as land development, social forestry, rural housing, rural electrification, maintenance of community assets etc. The unbundling of subjects into smaller unit of work through mapping differs from state to state, fueled also at times, by political resistance at various levels. The mapping of agriculture and allied sector activities, that are fundamental to the enhancement of livelihood productivity in rural areas (soil conservation, drought proofing, minor irrigation, flood control, rural connectivity etc), is critical for program implementation under MGNREGA. A major source of cross-purposes conflict in such activities is the one between the responsibilities of line departments and parastatal organizations at the state level and the exhaustive list of negative activities stipulated under the MGNREGA National Guidelines 2013  (e.g. activities such as boulder removal, ploughing, fertilizers operations, tubewell construction, silt application etc that are not permitted to be taken up under the Act). The conflict is at times exacerbated when line departments or parastatal organizations dealing with agricultural operations are given the role of Project Implementation Agencies (PIAs) under MGNREGA. The above is one pertinent reason amongst others for non permissible works being taken up, as pointed out by the CAG, which perhaps have not been mapped and unbundled at the Gram Panchayat level.
A second key challenge is to foster local convergences at the Gram Panchayat level to expeditiously track the flow of funds under MGNREGA and thus reduce inefficiencies in program implementation. The non completion of works is a serious concern highlighted by the CAG in context of MGNREGA funds that travel from the Union Government to Gram Panchayats via the State Governments annually. The Mission Mode Project of E-Panchayats is being managed by the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj and aims at enabling PRIs to electronically track MGNREGA program funds and improve internal management processes. There is a need to synergize the latter with the MGNREGA Management Information System (MIS) of the Union Ministry of Rural Development  that intends to enable online updation of critical data at each stage of the MGNREGA workflow. Despite the slow penetration of broadband in rural areas, no time should be lost to converge these information technology applications to effectively enable Gram Panchayats to monitor crucial benchmarks. These benchmarks being closure of muster rolls, capturing measurements, generating pay orders, issuing cheques and pay order to paying agency, transfer of cash to sub agency and wage disbursements to beneficiaries.
In addition, it will also be extremely worthwhile to learn from the results of the pilot project that has been launched by the government in Ramgarh District of Jharkhand State to use the Aadhaar Unique Identification Number  for biometric based authentication of payments to MGNREGA beneficiaries.
A third challenge is the capacity enhancement of approximately three million elected representatives and related official functionaries in Gram Panchayats at the grassroots every year. For meaningful capacity building, MGNREGA’S communication component must utilize locally relevant innovative social media such as community radio (National Community Radio Guidelines 2006 ) other than the pan India public and private broadcasting forums. The provision of SMS messaging on mobile phones to targeted beneficiaries in the MGNREGA National Guidelines in addition to using geo-referenced photographs, helplines, Common Service Centers (CSC) and video recording of Gram Sabha Social Audit is a welcome step. A key area of sensitization for political representatives and local officials is the e-FMS (Electronic Fund Management System) of the Union Ministry of Rural Development that has the potential to monitor the lack of flow of sufficient MGNREGA funds at the District/Block or Gram Panchayat level. Further, they and the larger village community in the Gram Sabha also need to be sensitized about the modus operandi to make MGNREGA payments to households under financial inclusion through ‘Bank Mitras’ (mobile bank correspondents) in areas where density of banks and post offices is low. Capacity building of the nuts and bolts of the administrative chain – the employment guarantee assistants, the mates, technical assistants, computer operator cum account clerks, dedicated engineers, junior engineers, panchayat development officers and program officers at the block level has to be coupled effectively with filling existent vacancies : a challenge that continues to plague streamlined program implementation.
A fourth challenge is the dire need to effectively operationalize the social audit mechanism in the Gram Sabha (village assembly within a Gram Panchayat), on the lines of ‘Jan Sunvai’ (public hearing) by nongovernmental organizations such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan  in Rajasthan. Infact, there is no alternative to triggering the much required grassroots transparency and accountability in program implementation via interpersonal participatory communication through social audits. Such social audits and proactive disclosures, at the Gram Sabha level and conducted by umpteen nongovernmental organizations, have to specifically target failure in disposal of local complaints pertaining to leakages in execution of rural assets. They also have to meticulously probe withholding of information under the Right to Information Act particularly about material purchase, measurement of works and other quality parameters. In addition, the Bhilwara Model of social audit in Rajasthan envisages active involvement of youth from rural areas as Bharat Nirman (Building India) Volunteers to create awareness and lead campaigns while the asset creation is in progress. Institutionalization of realistic social audit mechanism during the next five years is indeed necessary to act upon CAG’s observations on lack of creation of durable assets under MGNREGA.
Finally, the use of Cluster Facilitation Teams  under MGNREGA is to address, on priority, the locally relevant needs of community blocks of dense populations with landless agricultural laborers, Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and other vulnerable groups. These teams are intended to serve clusters of Gram Panchayats to fill the gap assessed on account of non availability of requisite expertise in land development activities at the local level. Intensive intervention, during the next five years, in such community blocks must ensure convergence with Self Help Groups being nurtured through the livelihood collective approach under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). Such a synergy would be very useful in disseminating relevant information on entitlements under MGNREGA to vulnerable groups’ especially rural women. It would, in addition, enable bridging of inequalities in 200 million hectares of rainfed areas that constitute 62% of the geographical area of India with the largest concentration of poverty spanning several agro ecological regions.
(The views expressed are personal)
Photo Credit: John Isaac / World Bank 
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