Killed by bad policy

A thousand Lalit Mehtas will risk their lives fighting corruption. And how entirely avoidable this could have been.

There is an outcry over the murder of Lalit Mehta, an upright public-minded citizen, who was allegedly killed while attempting to expose the corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in Palamau, Jharkhand. The public attention should help focus attention on the crime and bring the guilty to justice.

The murder provides a convenient excuse for proponents of the dubious scheme to reiterate their argument that the NREGS is being undermined by corruption. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Jean Drèze, the scheme’s chief proponent, have already done it. It is easy for Dr Drèze to blame the intermediaries and district officials for Mr Mehta’s brutal killing. But those who designed the system—and that includes Dr Drèze—can’t escape their share of the blame.

Any fool can design a scheme that would work if only there were no dishonest people in the world. As The Acorn has argued, the way the NREGS is designed creates huge new incentives for corruption. The proponents claim that the controls they had put in to check corruption would somehow work better than the controls that had been put in place to check corruption in the past. It should be clear to everyone by now that those controls don’t work. They only put good people like Mr Mehta in harm’s way.

Let’s remember now that among the UPA government’s acts of monumental irresponsibility ranks the extension of the NREGS to all districts in India, despite knowing that it is not quite working as touted. There are hundreds of Palamaus out there and thousands of Mr Mehtas will face threats to life and limb. These would have been avoidable with some clear thinking, competent policy design and responsible leadership.

In fact bad policy design only compounds a more fundamental flaw: bad policy vision. As Rohit Pradhan notes, the NREGS is designed to keep people in villages. And as Atanu Dey writes, it is also a scheme that is designed to keep them poor.