Bengal’s NREGS biometric plan thwarted

Centre bars Bengal govt’s move to introduce own biometric system
By bappaditya paul

The Centre has turned down the West Bengal government’s plan to introduce an independent biometric system for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in the state, saying it will be a repetition of the existing mechanism run by the Centre and will also delay the flow of information to Delhi.  NREGA work in progressOn 7 September 2012, the Bengal panchayat and rural development department had awarded a Rs 103-crore contract to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to develop, implement and maintain a biometric solution for NREGS for five years.

Envisaged for better implementation and monitoring of the 100 days job scheme in Bengal, the fund required for this was to come from the 6 per cent administrative expense permitted in NREGS.

A crucial feature of the proposed system was an automated wage disbursement mechanism having three components ~ enrollment of beneficiaries by capturing finger prints, a movable Point-of-Service device for disbursement of wages by authenticating the workers’ bio-metric data and a portal hosted on a data centre to consolidate all NREGS transactional information in the state and provide a comprehensive view of the entire program information. A village in West BengalThe system was to be implemented across Bengal by April 2013, but when the state sent the detailed project report to the Union rural development ministry, along with the TCS contract document, they objected to the plan on two counts.

First, barring the biometric authentication for the purpose of wage disbursement, most other features proposed in Bengal’s new mechanism are already there in the centralised NREGS system and hence it will be a repetition. Second, since the data centre proposed in the new system will be hosted on a state server, it will delay the flow of information to Delhi
and there are chances of manipulation.

“The central government had given an in-principle nod to the plan before we inked the agreement with TCS, but raised objections later when we told them the nitty-grittyies,” said Mr Sourav Das, the principal secretary of the state panchayat department.  Mamata BanerjeeEven after the rejection, the Bengal government kept on pursuing the matter citing that the biometric system would facilitate transparency and ensure the NREGS benefit reaches the actual target population. Consequent to this, the Centre has now given its nod to Bengal to carry out a pilot project, but in a truncated form.

“We have got consent for a pilot project but only for the biometric enrollment and wage disbursement components.  If it succeeds, it will be replicated in all districts and will be embedded into the central government’s existing NREGS system,” Mr Das said.

The pilot project will cost in the region of Rs 12 crore and the Bengal government has plans to try it in West Midnapore from next month.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 16 July 2013 under a different headline.)

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