Implement direct cash transfers adequately and win the next two general elections in 2014 and 2019 is the simple new mantra of the Congress party. The story on the ground, however, is vastly complex. Here, activist Nikhil Dey who has decades of experience not just in architecting laws like the Right to Information and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, but has also observed the impact and working of these laws on the ground cautions against this mantra. Infact, he says there is no evidence in MNREGS to suggest that delays in payments or corruption will be stemmed through the direct cash transfer scheme. He spoke to CNN IBN's Rupashree Nanda at the three-day Right to Food Campaign which concluded on Saturday.
CNN-IBN: You have closely been associated with the NREGS. An attempt has been made to make payments through and post offices? What has been the learning there?
Nikhil Dey, activist, MKSS: Almost all NREGS payments are made through banks or post offices. And, it is cash for work. It is not a dole. The biggest problem we have faced across the country and, we have tried to sort that out is the delays in payments. And it is there despite people trying to use the business correspondent or, the micro ATM model. It's there despite trying everything. So, it is beyond our understanding that suddenly tomorrow what new thing will be done that will mean immediate payment of cash to people without any leakage anywhere or, without wastage of time. We should have sorted out the problems in NREGS. We should have seen how we deal with banks, how we deal with business correspondents, how we deal with facts of accountability with the transaction of cash and, made sure that that worked properly. But there is no evidence from what we have seen over the past there years to show that the assertion being made now that suddenly we will have everything working perfectly.
CNN-IBN: You've said that UID and AADHAAR have burdened the NREGS. How?
Nikhil Dey, activist, MKSS: In MNREGS, people have their own identification already with job cards. Now, they are being asked to get another identification. They don't want it for their NREGS job. If someone is unable to get registered under AADHAAR they will be excluded from NREGS. AADHAAR can only do any benefit for a particular scheme if it has 100 per cent coverage. In NREGS, the entire machinery is trying to do AADHAAR enabled accounts whereas people already have their bank accounts. They have gone through one set of problems. Now they will go through another set of problems. NREGS is already cripppled with its own of issues which it needs to sort out. It does not need to be burdened with another set of problem. AADHAAR is using NREGS to spread the number of accounts it has. NREGS needs nothing from AADHAAR, gains nothing from AADHAAR. And, if there is anything, there can be localised biometric systems that can be used.
CNN-IBN: The government has claimed that direct cash transfers will cut delays and stem corruption?
Nikhil Dey, activist, MKSS: So NREGS should have been a good example. Actually there should have been no delays. AADHAAR is not enabling you any faster transfer of cash, it is already through a bank system, it is already through an online payment system. So what is the new thing that AADHAAR will give? NREGS proves to you that actually that there will be delays. We have found that manual systems were preventing corruption. Payment to a collective, in one place, in front of everyone ( works better). Now with this bank account system, people individually go and take their money. So those who are acting in collusion, who have never been to work - yes, you will make sure that that person is getting the money but he is the wrong person, he shouldn't be getting money, hasn't done any work - that corruption is actually enabled. We have found through painting things on the wall, doing things openly in a collective.... those manual basic systems are far better, they empower people. Here, we have some idea that technology will solve everything, it is a management ploy, it will not work. It may help in some cases, and in those cases we should roll it out, and see gradually how it works, and test it out before trying to do this big thing of being a game changer, and doing it across the board.
CNN-IBN: Though the government has said that the PDS will not be disturbed, there are definite indications that soon people may be given cash instead of foodgrain. What are the dangers of substituting foodgrain with cash?
Nikhil Dey, activist, MKSS: It is a clear failure. It is an admission of failure that we have failed to deliver food. Today we have food lying in stocks. So if you say have a resource crunch, we don't have a food resource crunch. We may have a monetary resource crunch. So actually what are we trying to do? We are saying on the one hand that we are going to reduce subsidies, we are putting in a fraudulent system in place. Today what is being done through ANNASHREE is actually clear - people have been asking for ration cards instead they are being given some amount of money - is a clear indication that the government wants to dismantle this PDS system. If it does that it will do it at great cost to itself, people will die of starvation in many parts of the country , it is an admission by government that it is unable to deliver, it is actually a clear sign of collusion with private interests that we will allow the market to function and not have this system of subsidized foodgrain which guarantees people a right to life and a right to food.
CNN-IBN: Rahul Gandhi has said that if the cash transfers work it will ensure successive electoral victories. Is it political expediency or is the party taking a risk, or is it sincere?
Nikhil Dey, activist, MKSS: There is nothing to show that in what has happened so far, in terms of delivery that they can do something better or quicker, any reason to say that it is a game changer. If they are saying they are going to remove goods and services, and replace them by cash, it is a failure of the government. Government is there to deliver goods and services. Tomorrow they will close down schools and hospitals because they are unable to deliver. They will pay a very big political price.