After getting the outlay for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) from Rs 30,000 crore to 40,000 crore last year, the rural development ministry is seeking a further increase to Rs 64,000 crore for the next year. The government will also start kick off a Rs 2,500 crore programme to check fraud accounts by using finger-print scanners in April as Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed anguish at reports of fraud and fake accounts.
“There are also reports that money from the scheme is being diverted to other purposes. We have also got reports of fake accounts and exploitation of workers. There are also complaints of workers not being paid after being made to work [under the scheme],” Gandhi said at the yearly review meeting of the one of the world’s largest welfare schemes of all times.
The government also announced an increase in the wages paid under the scheme from last month across the states based on their respective consumer inflation rates. The final call on increaseing NREGS budget will be taken by the finance minister in his budget.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also expressed concerns about reports of beating up of activists for trying to help illiterate villagers examine the accounts presented by the Panchayat officials in the ‘social audits’ under the scheme.
The scheme has come under criticism for leaving open the possibility of huge diversions of money intended for rural labourers by unscrupulous Panchayat functionaries through the creation of fictitious accounts. Six months ago, activist Aruna Roy, who serves on the governing council of the scheme had slammed the government for failing to act what she called “large-scale and unchecked corruption” in the scheme.
The concerns were underscored by an announcement by rights activits Sandeep Pandey that he is returning his NREGS achievement award and Rs 44,000 in protest of lack of action against a Panchayat leader who allegedly beat up workers trying to examine work records in UP.
Magsaysay award winner and activist Sandeep Pandey has decided to return the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) achievement award along with the cash award of Rs. 44,000 that was presented to him in February 2009.
Rural development secretary BK Sinha said that the government has indeed come across cases where “dead people have been paid wages” under the scheme, but such issues are confined to certain states only. The roll-out of finger-print readers, which help an agent to identify eligible laborers, is expected to lower cases of fictitious accounts and imposters making off with benefits. He also said that the Centre will overturn a previous amendment it had introduced that banned outside activists from participating in ‘social audits’ of the scheme projects in two months.
On punishing those who beat up activists checking accounts, newly appointed minister for rural development Vilasrao Deshmukh said the Centre cannot provide any direct protection as law and order is a state subject. “We, however, intend to write to all chief ministers to highlight the problem,” he said.