When the I&B ministry puts out an advertisement saying that, thanks to the MGNREGA programme, erstwhile bonded labour have been saved from the clutches of rich landlords, you begin to worry a bit. Not just because MGNREGA accounts for under 1% of total jobs in the country, but because there is no independent corroboration of bonded labour being freed due to this—indeed, if the labour was truly bonded, it would take more than a R100 per day wage to free it. Indeed, as the government plans to spend more money on schemes like MGNREGA and the Food Security Bill, there is an urgent need for independent evaluation of such schemes, and a look at their causality—has higher GDP growth contributed more to lowering poverty or have MGNREGA/PDS-type of programmes? Juxtapose NSS data against data from MGNREGA/PDS—NSS asks questions on food bought from ration shops and jobs from MGNREGA projects—against claims by the agencies that run these programmes and you see huge leakages of 40-50%.
To that extent, the Concurrent Evaluation Office suggested by rural development minister Jairam Ramesh for the R80,000 crore of annual expenditure by his ministry is a great idea. Jairam also has set aside a R1.75 crore annual budget for an independent CEO assisted by researchers and other professionals—economists who understand the difference between correlation and causality, for instance. The only catch is that since the office will be funded by the ministry whose work is being evaluated, to that extent, ensuring independence can be a bit tricky. In the long run, however, this is the way to go for all such expenditure, not just by Ramesh’s ministry.