NREGA II and PRIs

NREGA II has been on the cards for a while now. This ET article has some details. However, I am not totally sure what this implies –

A secretariat will be set up within the ministry to guide the transformation and states would also be brought on board. Professionals from the open market will help with the scheme, which will have a block-level plan headed by a programme officer.

Planning Commission member Mihir Shah adds – 

“We are looking at dividing each block (90 villages) into three clusters of 30 villages each,”

I am scouting around for details, hoping that this doesn’t imply that the primacy of the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) system is at risk. Even in states where local governance has taken root, Village Panchayats are seldom strong, and the Block and District Panchayats are even weaker. Part of the reason is a blurry mandate and their subordination to the parallel state bureaucracy that has not been dismantled (and still tends to dictate terms to PRIs, rather than enabling them). Creation of new clusters and establishing a Programme Officer position, if not done in sync with the existing system, will further weaken the PRIs.

What is important obviously, is to strike the right balance. I am not a PRI-romantic blindly advocating Panchayats as the solution to all of India’s development issues. However, the solution is clearly not to abandon Panchayats or create conflicting parallel structures. Panchayats, especially at the lowest levels need to enhance professional capacity. In fact, what might be even more important is for Panchayats to regain the rightful decision-making space when it comes to planning and executing development projects and administering the use of funds at its disposal. My research in Kerala clearly showed that there is only so much a Panchayat can achieve with a weak Secretary (the administrative head of a Village Panchayat), who cannot even control his/her own technical bureaucratic staff (engineers, doctors, teachers etc). The Panchayats need a competent Chief Executive, whose authority is not under threat from the other public officials at their respective levels.

To be successful, NREGA II needs strong technical inputs. It therefore makes sense that the Planning Commission is talking about bringing in technical expertise into the system. Hopefully, this will be done in a way that the PRIs are strengthened – not only to implement the NREGA better, but the myriad other projects and schemes that are being and will continue to be thrown at them every year…

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