Improving Public Welfare Programs Through Village Participation

By Samik Adhikari

In my last post, I raisedquestions about the measures to reduce corruption in a program of immense scale like MNREGA. This week, I want to shift the focus a little by trying to point out where exactly one form of corruption is likely to occur. With it, I would like to cite an innovative approach from an NGO that improved transparency and efficiency in the program at a local level.
As clichéd as it may sound, information campaigns, when spiced up with necessary ingredients, might serve as a powerful tool to raise public awareness. The pros and cons of adopting participatory measures like awareness and empowerment of local villagers, especially in ensuring proper delivery of public service goods has been highlighted in many academic studies including Stiglitz(2002), Bardan and Mookherjee (2006), and the World Development Report (2004) which emphasizes on “putting poor people at the center of service promotion”. Olken(2007) uses two different forms of awareness drives in Indonesia in a randomized setting to test the impact on “missing” expenditures in village level road projects.
Nidan is a NGO based in Bihar which aims to empower the poor through community based participation interventions. One such initiative is the approach to leverage NREGA through formation of a labor cooperative. For rural households, the process of applying to unskilled labor jobs through MNREGA consists of many bureaucratic hurdles. Even though the central government has assigned all responsibilities of providing employment to the Gram Panchayat, the inefficient authorities involved and their rent-seeking behavior prevents the benefits from reaching concerned households. Most of the blockages are caused in issuing of job cards, which every household seeking employment is entitled to, after submitting their name, address and a photo.
In order to spread awareness about the specifics of MNREGA and to help prevent irregularities of Gram Panchayat in non-issuance of job cards, Nidan ran an awareness campaign across 115 villages and 24 Panchayats in Vaishali district in Bihar, mostly through innovative means like wall painting, pamphlet distribution and Natak Mandalis, where members enacted messages related to MNREGA showing villagers potential situations they could find themselves in while applying for the employment scheme.
The labor cooperative formed to spread awareness has succeeded along three different realms. First, it has managed to educate villagers about the MNREGA process. Second, it has created awareness about the pitfalls of the Gram Panchayat, thus alerting villagers about their rights to gain employment within 15 days of application submission. If unable to gain employment thereafter, they are entitled to unemployment allowance. The most important success of the program, however, could come in the form of linking labor cooperatives to government sponsored skilled development platforms. In addition, members of the cooperative have been able to gain access to Nidan’s microfinance program, which has helped them set up micro enterprises. Nidan’s own skill training initiative has provided hatchery, handloom, tailoring and animal husbandry training to 360 members of the cooperative, helping to extend the horizon of sustainable livelihoods beyond the 100 days of employment promised by MNREGA.
In light of Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach” to poverty, livelihood activities provide opportunities to households that fulfill their basic necessities, and allow them to leverage their skills to rise above the poverty line. An initiative like the one carried out by Nidan, not only ensures livelihoods promotion but also adds the critical “sustainable” prefix to it – largely due to the transferable set of skills rural poor gain from such initiatives. Studying carefully designed small interventions from private practitioners can help fill some of the gaps left in the implementation process of large scale national livelihood programs. For a country where more than 320 million still live below the poverty line, making sure that government programs like MNREGA and NRLM reach as many beneficiaries as possible could be an important step in helping the poor.