Social protection programs have become popular among Governments and International Agencies who have invested huge funds in elaborate social security programs. India has a long history of social safety net programs, but even now one-fourth of its population lives in poverty. The Government of India launched the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005, which is one of the most expansive development programs today. It has provided employment to over 50 million households and spending nearly 8 billion US dollars in April 2009-March 2010. As a statutory law, it holds the government accountable for providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household in rural areas of India. MNREGA has been changing the social fabric of rural India as well. The law mandates at least one-third workforce be women and paid equal to men. Seen as nothing less than social revolution, the unprecedented women participation under MGNREGA has been ‗re-gendering‖ roles in a rural household across the country.
MGNREGA has also been playing an instrumental role in restructuring local governance and transforming social protection into social justice. By analyzing the Social Audit mechanism under Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) (NREGA, Section 17), this paper explores how social protection policies hold the potential for social justice. The basic objective of a social audit is to ensure public accountability in the implementation of projects, laws and policies. Initially envisaged as only post implementation exercises, they have actually now emerged as a way to empower poor and transform social-political structures in the villages. It has become a powerful medium to provide the most vulnerable with a ―voice‖ to assert their ―rights‖, hold the village and local administration accountable also assume collective responsibility of the program. But this does not translate naturally. The poor are constrained by unequal socio-economic political structures, illiteracy and unawareness- lacking the capability to demand their rights and hold the government accountable. This is where the non-profit and civil society organizations have stepped in to invigorate and educate the beneficiaries of their entitlements. These models have to be contextualized in the social-economic-political-historical and cultural context in which they are being exercised. Social audits thus create a collaborative and constructive platform for participatory governance to address the above challenges of social protection programs.
Through this paper, I propose that empowerment is the first step toward sustainable development. Social Protection Programs have been aimed at providing only minimum subsistence and not building capacities for empowerment. Decentralized participatory governance models hold the key to more effective implementation and empowerment. Thus, participatory governance and social accountability are the missing links to bridge social protection and social justice.