We are fundamentally trying to ensure that the needy get a job under PMEP

From the last fiscal year, the government has taken up the task of creating new jobs for unemployed people within the country. The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security introduced a flagship programme titled ‘Prime Minister Employment Programme’ in February last year which was inaugurated by Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli himself. However, the programme has faced criticism from various quarters over its implementation modality and the lack of tangible results. In this context, Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times spoke to Ramchandra Dhakal, joint secretary and head of PMEP, to know more about the current status of the programme and further plans for its effective implementation. Excerpts:

Can you tell us how the PMEP is being implemented by the government and its current status?

This is the second year of the implementation of the programme. Last year, we were more focused on formulating the act, guidelines, regulations and working procedures related to the PMEP. This year our priority will be solely on implementing the programme based on the laws that have been developed to guide it. After we received numerous complaints regarding the implementation process of the PMEP, we have tried to usher in changes in some necessary areas. Recently, we have changed the working procedure called ‘cash for work’ and introduced a new software named ‘Employment Management Information Service’. As per the stated guidelines, we have allocated Rs two billion to implement the programme in 623 out of the total 753 local bodies. Based on the suggestions and feedback provided by the local levels, we have allocated a minimum of Rs one million to a maximum of Rs 7.5 million to each local level. We also listed the unemployment data in March last year and the government has allotted a total of Rs 4.83 billion for the programme. We have separated Rs 2.20 billion for this fiscal and released Rs two billion. Last year, we had allocated budget as per the topography, population and unemployment rate. But now, we have prepared 24 different headings under which the grant shall be disbursed to the local levels.

The PMEP has faced severe criticism since its launch last year, as no tangible work progress was witnessed. What do you have to say about this?

We must realise that the PMEP was introduced to implement the ‘right to employment’ as per the constitutional provision. The programme focuses on including people who have been listed as ultra poor and who are between the ages of 18 and 59 years and are yet to receive any social protection. A similar programme called ‘Food for work’ was also being run in the previous year under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration. One must understand that we are authorised to provide social protection only to the aforementioned category of people. So, we don’t have to introduce big projects or works to provide employment. Last year, we faced some criticism also due to the fact that we had very little time to handle the project effectively. However, we are more mature this year to efficiently implement the programme. I feel that most of the people who have been criticising us are not aware of the ‘right to employment’ provision in the constitution and have assumed that the PMEP has been launched to offer employment opportunities to political cadres, which is definitely a misjudged perspective. We can offer employment opportunities to thousands of youths who have been deprived of even 100 days of employment in a year. We are fundamentally trying to ensure that the poor and marginalised people get a job under this programme PMEP doesn’t recognise any political party cadres or power brokers. We are only concerned about those citizens who are looking for work and we don’t have any plan to discriminate against any person based on their political belief. The PMEP has faced criticism, but I would like to assure everyone that we will now implement it in such a manner that any ordinary Nepali youth will be proud of the programme in the future and also feel protected.

How have you planned to implement the programme this year so that it is free of any type of criticism?

We have plans to hand over the project implementation part to the local governments in terms of project selection, labour mobilisation, fund distribution and outcome. We will coordinate and manage the PMEP in terms of legal and managerial aspects. Personally, I feel that some very important tasks were accomplished last year, given the time and fund constraints that we faced. However, one crucial aspect that needs to be understood by all is that if the local governments do not take ownership of the project implementation, then it will be difficult to implement the programme as per the aspirations of the general public. Some works that were done last year were related to maintenance of roads, ponds and irrigation canals and also afforestation initiatives. We have learnt quite a lot from last year’s experiences and we will do our best to minimise the faults that were witnessed. Earlier we had asked the local governments to provide the list of projects to be included in the PMEP and implemented them as per existing guidelines. But now we have revised certain provisions and tightened the working procedures so that there is no chance of the funds being misutilised this year. Last year we were able to engage 167,000 registered unemployed people for 13 days of work on an average, but this year we plan to increase the number of people who will be provided employment. And we plan to provide 100 days of employment. We have updated the data we have regarding unemployed people, hence there will be more transparency in implementing the project now. With any large scale project, we learn as we start working on it and we will definitely improve in the following years.

How do you plan to make local levels more responsible to implement the PMEP?

The local levels have gradually started taking ownership of the programme as the fund will be provided as conditional grant. If the local governments are able to better coordinate with the federal government while implementing the programme, then it will benefit them. Otherwise, they will face a setback in terms of development in comparison to other local governments as competition starts rising among local governments to perform better. We are also focused on including the programme in the local levels’ yearly plans and programmes so that implementation of the project is more transparent. If the local governments take ownership and include the programme in their annual plan, we will transfer the grant amount in the very beginning of the fiscal year. This will help them utilise the funds as per their convenience and we will get better output too. Meanwhile, we have been disseminating information regarding the PMEP through local and national media to create awareness among the concerned stakeholders.

The government recently inked a pact with the World Bank for a loan worth $120 million to implement the PMEP. Do you think it is justified to take a loan for a programme that is basically focused on wealth distribution rather than generation?

The country does have a policy to receive foreign aid through various international development partners to implement various projects. The PMEP itself has a policy that states that financial assistance (loan/grant) can be taken for employment and skill development purposes. The government’s plan is in line with country’s adopted policy. The government has been taking loans/grants for decades for infrastructure development, educational purposes, health and other specific sectoral programmes. As far as the loan for PMEP is concerned, some in the media and a few critics are deliberately misinterpreting the programme. We have taken the loan for skill development purposes and for the benefit of the unemployed. Once the programme is implemented in a full-fledged manner, it will help generate skilled labour and we will also have data on people who have worked in various projects who can be tapped for development works in the future.