August 5, 2014

The Curious Case of 35

This is an illustration of the almost comical interface between central and state governments, the use of technology and information, rural development policies, labour unions and the rights of the poor in our country. 

To implement the various centrally sponsored schemes of rural development, the Centre government releases funds to state governments. It monitors the usage of these funds through various modes.

In some cases, Management Information Systems (MIS) have been designed to feed in data on parameters of implementation processes at the panchayat, block or district level directly. More advanced MIS’s also have information on fund releases and utilisation. Most of this information is publicly accessible. Thus sitting anywhere in the world, you will have access to the amount of money spent on a particular program along with a panchayat wise list of beneficiaries and the outcomes, all in one portal. In many ways, it is truly marvellous.

In other ways, changes to the design of the MIS directly impact how the program is implemented. Further, since this is publicly accessible information which is used as the basis for fund release it is paramount for all accounting and review purposes. 

Consider this (long-winded) example of the rural employment guarantee program. 

The basic provisions of this are for the administration to provide work as per the demand of rural household’s in need of work. To aid implementation, all the relevant parameters are captured in the MIS such as; households that have asked for work, ongoing works in a panchayat, households that have been provided work and workers who have been paid.

Now when the first installment is released to the states at the beginning of the financial year, there is a spike in new works opened in April to June which gets reflected on the MIS. This usually happens for two reasons; it is the prime time for the need of such a rural employment guarantee program between the harvest and the next sowing season. This is the time when landless agricultural workers usually migrate for work to bigger towns and cities. Secondly, due to the constraints of human resources, the data entry of the previous financial year is not completed before 31st March. Thus the backlog is cleared in the initial few months of the next financial year which shows up as a sharp increase.

However, even taking into account these factors, in one particular state is was noted that there were extremely high numbers of works being opened in the first few months which “guzzled” all the funds. In an attempt to check this, the state government requested the central government to put a cap on the number of works that can be generated in one panchayat at any given time to 35. This would be enforced through the MIS.

Needless to say, the figure 35 is arbitrary and any such cap is a violation as the program, backed by an Act is to ensure works on demand of rural households. On the other hand one can argue that administrators can innovate and tailor policy implementation based on local context by making use to the information and technological resources at hand. In any case, the Central Government accepts the reasoning of the request and puts into the system the cap for that particular state. Thus now the MIS will not allow for more than 35 works to be opened in one panchayat.  

Within the state, this message is communicated down to the field functionaries. Now several confusions arise. The first is between works and muster rolls. For each work, there is a calculation of the number of persondays required. For example, digging a farm pond may require 400 persondays. This can be done by a group of 20 workers over 20 days. A muster roll is a list of workers to record attendance and persondays of work completed. It is usually generated for about a week. Thus the farm pond work site will require 2-3 muster rolls. One confusion that emerged at the panchayat level was whether the cap was on the number of muster rolls or the number of works. By the time this was clarified by the state government, in some places the damage was already done with workers being turned away when the mistaken cap of 35 muster rolls was reached. The reason this provision and its consequent confusion was deciphered was because of the presence of an active labour union in the region. Only because of repeated inquiries on why works were not being opened, this new cap was revealed and communicated to them. In other areas where they are not active, perhaps workers have no idea as to why they are being denied work.

The second more important impact of this cap was as follows. It’s a little complicated but stay with me. To officially ‘close’ a work on the MIS, all payments for material and wage payments must be made. As a result there are a large number of works that though physically complete, are shown as ‘on-going’ as the wage payments haven’t been made yet. The reasons for this may vary, though one of the predominant reasons is a lack of funds (from the Centre to the State and downwards). Thus the cap of 35 actually had to discount for works that were already complete on ground but cannot be shown as complete on the system. This led to further stagnation and agitation.  

After around six months, in the mode of damage control, the state government requested a loosening of this cap. Instead they requested that the cap of 35 be applied to every financial year. This would give them some room to not consider the works completed in the previous year but still pending payment.

All this while, the labour union holds village meeting after meeting speaking of worker entitlements as per the Act. People are encouraged to apply for work, to fight for works to be opened and to be paid on time. Their grievances are recorded and facilitated. Their disillusionment taken on board and dispelled. To them, this cap of 35 is in some ways rather immaterial. It is just one of the many other reasons that the administration provides for not delivering on entitlements. In another way it strikes at the very core of the idea of an entitlement. Public speak on worker entitlements and poverty alleviation seems like a charade when the behind the scenes is so confusing and chaotic. In this comedy of errors, the real joke though is on that poor family calculating their finances and making their decision on whether they should migrate for work or not.

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