As someone who has cut one’s teeth working on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) before working on social accountability practices, I read with interest Nayanika Mathur’s Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. It is based on the study of the implementation of MGNREGA, in its early years in 2006 and 2007 in Chamoli district of Uttrakhand. With contemporary references ranging from Sarnath Banerjee’s Harappa Files, to Dayanita Singh’s Fileroom, an intriguing question is posed; “How can an unalloyed public good such as transparency complicate the implementation of a welfare programme? (p 82)”
The answer alas, is difficult to come by and far from convincing. By spending time in the district office implementing the MGNREGA, this ethnographic study details the life of lower bureaucrats, the rhythm of meetings, of paperwork, of their private and social lives and finally, in their engagement with the implementation of the law. The central finding is that the very documents that make the programme transparent are the ones that are ‘ironically’ making the law difficult to implement. It is argued that instead of actual implementation, the focus, has been on the laborious production of material evidence by the lower bureaucrats. “In its quest to ‘make things auditable’ NREGA has converted easily-executed – at least on paper – public works schemes into unimplementable ones even on paper (pg 95).” This is explained through the job card, a document required to be in possession of each worker, which contains details of their work done and wages earned. This document it is claimed is posing “a hindrance to the regular working of the Indian state.”
There are three clear counts on which challenge these claims and propositions; the definition of transparent, the definition of un-implementable and the methodology used to describe the job card as a hindrance.
First on the definition of transparency; “Both the NREGA and the RTI are premised on the triple assumption that the prescribed documents are actually being produced by the state bureaucracy, that these pieces of paper are accurate representations of reality, and that subaltern subjects can access and hold on to these papers (pg 84).” Any reading of the advocacy for the NREGA and the RTI will make clear that there was no such assumption that the pieces of paper are accurate representations of reality. In fact, the entire framing of the debate was that once documents are open to public scrutiny, they would perhaps become less fantastical. It is further stated, “‘transparency’ is said to have been accomplished through the production and circulation of the correct documents.” The Ministry of Rural Development’s own definition of transparency is far wider than that, as is evidenced through the minimum principles paid down by the statutory Central Employment Guarantee Council. These relate to universality, inclusiveness, facilitation, multiplicity of modes of disclosure, using culturally appropriate means and so on, and not just a check box of documents.
Second, the ‘crisis of un-implementability’ has been defined as the under-utilization of NREGA funds. Given that this book was published in 2016, surely the author would have been aware that the under-utilization of funds was only an issue in the first few years of the implementation of the legislation. The dominant discourse, over the last seven years has been one of under funding of the programme and illegal rationing of funds, which has triggered long delays in wage payments. In fact, government data of Chamoli district shows an exceeding of their ‘labour budget’ over the last four years. The foundational assumption of un-implementability on such a temporary phenomenon severely weakens the argument.
Third, and most mystifying are the contradictory statements on the job card. Prior to the MGNREGA, the author describes the ‘contractor raj’ wherein it is easy to produce (fake) documents, where every functionary and representative involved gets a ‘cut’ of the development funds, and thus “on paper, these previous schemes were easily implementable.” This is then compared to the “easily controllable” system of the MGNREGA, which creates “a stringent system of double counting with mutually corresponding documents”. “To make matters worse, one of these documents is actually supposed to physically reside outside government offices, so that exercising control over it adds to the already complicated (paper) work. It is no wonder, then, that the paperwork of the scheme had made it ‘unimplementable’ in Chamoli district. (pg 94)”
Leaving aside the logical conclusion that the author is proposing we return to the contractor raj, where schemes can be implemented on paper, this analysis is particularly frustrating given the conspicuous absence, of the inbuilt legal provisions of social audits. While passing references are made in the context of neoliberal rationality, it is not addressed as part of the assumptions made on the job card and the MGNREGA. Put simply, social audits take these very government documents back to people, verify them with each household and conclude with public hearings on the findings and discrepancies. The job card is not just a material production or an enabling identity document. It is intended to flip the information asymmetry that exists in the implementation of welfare programmes, which leads to misuse. That such a fundamental design of the law has not been addressed, which in fact is an instrumental usage of the material production of documents that the author describes, is a big miss. Had that been done, some of the questions raised here would have deepened knowledge and understanding of the workings of bureaucracy, development programmes and the paperwork around it.
Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi is a social accountability fellow, with the Centre for Budget Governance and Accountability, also associated with the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, and the campaigns for employment guarantee, right to food and social security.