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NREGA implementation- I: Reasonable Beginning in Palakkad, Kerala

A case study of how the government's employment guarantee scheme is being implemented in one Kerala district reveals the vital role played by local bodies. While implementation has been largely fair and corruption-free, the scheme needs to be more efficiently and effectively used so as to meet the long-term requirements of the state and its people.


Reasonable Beginningin Palakkad, Kerala

A case study of how the government’s employment guarantee scheme is being implemented in one Kerala district reveals the vital role played by local bodies. While implementation has been largely fair and corruption-free, the scheme needs to be more efficiently and effectively used so as to meet the long-term requirements of the state and its people.


he Kerala Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (KREGS), created under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), has been implemented in the rural districts of Palakkad and Waynad in the state. This article discusses the implementation and the challenges faced by the scheme in Palakkad district. The scheme is being implemented in all 91 panchayats of the district, under 13 block panchayats, in a limited scale, taking one ward per panchayat; 86.38 per cent of the population in the district live in rural areas.

This article is based on a survey conducted in October 2006 by the Economics Research Group (ERG) of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi. The team visited various block and gram panchayat offices of the district and interacted with workers at the KREGS work sites. The inspiration for the study was a similar survey conducted by students of Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University in the state of Jharkhand.1 They emphasised the fact that the absence of gram panchayats and gram sabhas in the state had created an institutional vacuum at the field level. This prompted us to look into the implementation of the scheme in Kerala, a state hailed as a model in local body governance and which tops the list in all social indicators. The aim hence was to find out whether there is a high degree of correlation between efficient implementation of a scheme like NREGA and the so-called social indicators like literacy, efficient local governance, etc.

Kerala has the highest literacy and unemployment rate in India; hence when the registration for national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGS) was opened, a large proportion of applicants were educated youth. They registered under the delusion that government would provide guaranteed “white-collar” jobs depending on the level of their education. But when they realised the nature of works undertaken by the scheme, they either withdrew or kept away from further procedures. This is just a glimpse of the high level of unemployment that persists among the educated population in the state, for whom a scheme like NREGA is of little use.

Labour Force Participation

A striking feature noted throughout the survey was the overwhelming participation of women labourers. This was despite the fact that men dominated many of the earlier wage employment programmes [Chathukulam and Gireesan 2006] which were implemented from 1980. Women constituted above 60 per cent of the total applicants in all panchayats.2This was naturally expected in a state like Kerala where the status of women is much better as compared to their counterparts in other states. Further, women constituted 90 per cent of the total workforce employed under the NREGS.

The high levels of participation by the women could first and foremost be attributed to the existing wage rates in and around Palakkad. It was found out that women workers were paid a wage that ranged between Rs 60 and 80 per day, while their male counterparts received Rs 120-150 per day. The NREGA ensures a minimum wage of Rs 125 per day for a

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 labourer, irrespective of male or female, in Palakkad district, which was set in accordance with the Public Works Department (PWD) schedule rates. So there is an obvious and direct incentive for female workers to choose the employment provided under the scheme over the available employment opportunities.

An impediment to the participation of more men was the social stigma associated with the fact that men and women are paid equal wages. Many men did not accept the “guaranteed employment” promise precisely because of this reason.

Wage Payment

Unlike other states, wages are not paid to workers in hand or at the work sites. Instead the panchayat helps all the workers who are provided job cards to open zero-balance accounts in any of the nationalised banks, the wages accruing to a particular card holder or his family member are deposited in this account. This single measure drastically reduces corruption as the officers are not directly handling wage payments and hence there is no “incentive” for them to fudge muster rolls.

The entire wages were given in cash and no portion of it was given “in kind”, hence the entire wage bill would lead to the multiplier effect in the economy [Patnaik 2005]. But the only problem with the above system is the delayed payment of wages. The wages according to the Act should be paid on a weekly basis, but not later than 14 days. But it is only after the muster rolls are returned to the panchayat office that they can start the process of transferring the required funds to respective bank accounts. As a result workers reported cases where wages were delayed more than 20 days.

The role of local bodies has been well defined in the NREGA. In Jharkhand a similar survey team observed that the local bodies were not functional and there were cases where elections to these bodies took place years ago. The situation was in sharp contrast to this in Kerala, where efficient local governance was in place. All the gram panchayats had NREGS offices and the officers were well aware of the clauses in the Act. A special gram sabha was convened for informing the local people about the scheme. We were told by the people that at least four gram sabhas took place over the year. The block panchayat officer (BPO) was aware of the status of the works undertaken in the panchayats under his purview. This underlines the importance of local bodies in the proper implementation of a decentralised scheme like this.

The muster rolls were available at all worksites, they were filled in properly and no fudging of rolls was observed. Muster rolls of the completed works were in turn returned to the panchayat offices and were available for verification on request. But no proper grievance redressal mechanism was institutionalised at the block or district level to look into any complaints in respect of the implementation of the scheme, neither was any procedure laid down by state government to dispose such complaints.

High Awareness

Literacy rate in Palakkad district is the lowest in Kerala – 84.35 per cent, which is high when compared with rural areas in other states. It is observed that female literacy rate in the district is less than of

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

males by 10 percentage points as per the 2001 Census. Being literate need not always translate to higher levels of awareness but as regards this scheme the response from workers showed they were aware of the Act and its provisions. Almost everyone knew they were entitled to 100 days of guaranteed employment under the scheme for a prescribed minimum wage of Rs 125. They were also aware of the facilities they were supposed to have in their worksites.

The credit for high levels of awareness again goes to local bodies. Initiatives were taken to translate and publicise the Act. Even “Special Gram Sabhas” were convened to inform people about the Act’s provisions. While panchayat ward members have done a good job in taking information to the grass root levels, an exception noted was that workers were not clear about the provisions regarding unemployment and there were no cases of distribution of unemployment wages.

Implementation Problems

One of the major problems of implementation was due to improper estimation of labour requirements. As we mentioned earlier, women made up much of the employment list, but the estimate of the projects in many panchayats were prepared keeping in mind the productivity of men. Thus, women labourers, though they worked hard, were not able to complete the required work according to the estimates. Some of the works initiated under the scheme like water canal construction involved continuous digging, etc, the sort of work women would find difficult. As a result, the workers reported cases where authorities refused to pay them full wages.

Another consequence of estimation problems was thegross underemployment. Authorities were driven by the target of giving employment to all people to whom job cards were issued. Hence some work sites employed more workers than what was actually required.

Some Concerns

(i) Seasonal variations: The vast majority of the people are involved in agriculture that provides employment for the workforce. The agricultural activities dominate in the district during the harvest season, which is twice a year. Once the harvest is done with, the households sink into a season of unemployment.

This scheme can then be very efficiently used to fill the void created in this scenario of seasonal unemployment. There have been instances in some panchayats where the work that began was temporarily stopped so as not to interfere with the harvest. We could gather from the block programme officers that this factor has been noted and there have been directions so as to schedule the work accordingly in future.

(ii) Supervision problems: The scheme is presently being implemented on a limited scale in the district. But a lesson learnt is that there is a severe shortage in manpower of government staff employed to supervise the scheme. There is only one overseer and engineer to supervise works of an entire panchayat. When the scheme is implemented on a wider scale in all wards of a panchayat (as has happened from November 1, 2006), two officers alone would not be able to supervise the works efficiently.

(iii) Workers’ perspective: As mentioned above delayed payment of wages is the most important problem for the workers. They are used to the system of daily wages and it is important for the “bread winner” of the house to get some cash in hand daily. This was another reason for the low turnout of men for the work. Another grievance raised by the workers in some panchayats was that the authorities were not giving them specific instructions regarding the amount of work to be done.

(iv) Nature of the works undertaken: The Act specifically defines that the scheme should aim at promoting “asset creating” work. The Act makes it mandatory that of the total cost incurred by a panchayat 60 per cent should be towards wage payment and 40 per cent towards material costs.3 This clause is acting as a hindrance towards real asset creation. Much of the works hence undertaken were devoted to drainage renovation, water channel creation and similar sort of works where material requirements were minimal. The overseers also expressed serious concern as they cannot make estimates with just 40 per cent material costs. A greater allocation towards material costs is required to initiate proper asset creating works.


The existing socio-economic conditions in a state have a great influence on the successful implementation of schemes like the NREGS. The role played by the local bodies in informing the masses about the Act and its provisions, the higher participation by women in the scheme and minimal corruption levels are important features observed in this study. The practicality of the unemployment allowance is questioned, as no serious steps are being taken in this regard. Though Kerala took a comparatively longer time to implement the Act, the state has done its homework and is doing fairly well in implementing the Act in select districts, if not in absolute terms then surely in relative terms.




[The survey team spent one week in Palakkad district visiting Malampuzha, Palakkad and Chittur blocks of the district. We acknowledge the contributions made by Kaustav Banerjee and the inspiration given by our friends Tanmay Shukla and Apurva Bamezai, who were part of a similar study in the state of Jharkhand. We thank the faculty members of our college for their valuable suggestions.]

1 Bela Bhatia and Jean Dreze, ‘Employment Guarantee in Jharkhand: Ground Results’, EPW, Vol XLI, No 29, July 22, 2006.

2 Detailed report of implementation of NREGA in Palakkad district from the district programme office, KREGS.

3 ‘National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for Sustainable Development and Employment Guarantee’, Hand Book, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Section


Census (2001): Series 33, Kerala, Final Population Totals, Paper 1 of 2001, Director of Census Operations, Thiruvananthapuram.

Chathukulam, Jos, K Gireesan (2006): ‘Political Economy of Pre-Launch Preparedness of NREGA in Kerala’, paper prepared for National Seminar on Panchayat Raj Institutions after 73rd Amendment Constitution: A New Deal for Rural India on August 19-20 at Tirupati, organised by AGRASRI.

Patnaik, Prabhat (2005): ‘On the Need for Providing Employment Guarantee’, EPW, January 15.

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