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Hollowing out a promise

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The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is going through a deep crisis of delayed and failed wage payments. The problem is not new, but it is more serious than ever and threatens to undermine the entire programme.

The crisis has at least four manifestations: Delayed payments, rejected payments, diverted payments and locked payments. Let me try to spell them out, one by one.

Delays in wage payments have plagued NREGA ever since bank payments were introduced about 10 years ago. In recent years, there has been some improvement in what might be called first-step delays — the delays that occur before the final signature of a Fund Transfer Order (FTO). First-step delays are reasonably transparent and the system is designed to calculate the compensation due to workers (by the state government) when they occur. But the system hides the second-step delays — the delays that occur when bank transfers themselves are held up. In a recent analysis of NREGA wage payments in 10 states, Rajendran Narayanan, Sakina Dhorajiwala and Rajesh Golani found that second-step delays were as long as two months on average in 2016-17. Repeated demands for second-step delays to be disclosed and compensated for by the central government have fallen on deaf ears so far.

One reason why delays have persisted for so long is that the payment system is constantly being re-designed. First it was cash payments, then post-office payments, then bank payments, then specific banks, then various avatars of what is now called the National electronic Fund Management System (NeFMS), and now the Aadhaar Payments Bridge System (APBS). None of these innovations, so far, has been able to ensure payment within 15 days of the work being done, as prescribed under NREGA.

Even as the delays continue,........

© Indian Express