I was a year into journalism when I was packed off to Jodhpur on an assignment. After spending a few days in the ‘blue city’ — much of which was spent inside uninspiring government offices — I decided to soak in the glorious winter sun.
The first stop was the Umaid Bhawan Palace, an opulent golden-yellow sandstone edifice built between 1929 and 1943. The local contact regaled me with stories about the city, palace and the royal family, but today I remember only one: The palace was a result of an MGNREGS-type royal scheme. “The maharaja commissioned it to ensure that farmers don’t go hungry because of a long-drawn-out drought,” he told me, as we walked up the Chittar Hills, on which the palace is built.
I often remember this story when people question the efficacy of public programmes like the MGNREGS, which completed 10 years on February 2. Launched in 2006 by the UPA 1 at Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, the scheme has not been an unqualified success. Yet in the 10 years, it has generated 9.86 billion person-days of employment, benefiting 276 million workers. More than half the jobs went to women workers and almost a third to SC/STs. There has been many other ‘downstream’ effects but more of that later.
It’s a pity, however, that the NDA initially did not give much support to the scheme and it lost steam in the last two years. Last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the scheme as “a living monument of the failure of the successive Congress governments”. His vehemence surprised me because political wisdom says that such safety nets are always popular with voters. In the last two Budgets, the NDA did not increase the allocation for the programme. Not much time and effort was spent on improving the wage payments. There was also a lot of criticism of the quality of assets that were being created.
But many of us let out a sigh of relief when finance minister Arun Jaitley recently cleared the air on the funding of the scheme and termed it as “another engine” that will pull the Indian economy towards higher growth. Jaitley said: “The NDA has not followed the practice of making higher provisions and later cutting it. I think this would be the first year when the Rs 34,000-35,000 crore which was allocated have not only been spent fully, but also some more resources could be given to MGNREGA.”
Many have attributed the NDA’s sudden change of heart to three developments largely: Rural distress, bad monsoon and the need to improve its pro-poor outreach. Whatever it is, this interest in the scheme has led to a tussle with the Congress on the ownership of the scheme. While Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has taken potshots at the government, the NDA has claimed that it has brought a “transformation” in the rural job guarantee scheme, which was in a “pitiable” state under the UPA due to frequent curtailing of funds.
While the Congress must be given due recognition for rolling out the scheme, it is true that it did lose steam during UPA2. The reason could be the Congress, at that point of time, was under tremendous political pressure from all sides and started doubting the effectiveness of the scheme that it so carefully nurtured.
But the fact that there is a rebound in demand for work is a good sign and the NDA must grab the chance. The coalition must be commended for its positive attitude towards the scheme and the fact that it is putting the welfare of millions, especially marginalised women, ahead of politics. It is now over to the Congress to let the government run the programme the way it wants to but also keep an eye on the implementation of the scheme.
Coming back to the positives of the scheme, there are enough of them for the NDA to implement in letter and spirit and then enjoy its political returns. In the last 10 years, the scheme has been credited for pushing up farm wages, productivity and gender empowerment.
In fact, for many women, the MGNREGS has been the first opportunity in their lives to earn cash income. One such woman is Bhanumati. I met her during a trip to Bundelkhand, a perpetually drought-stricken area. “Despite the drought, we decided to stay back thanks to money coming from the MGNREGS,” she told me. Bhanumati, who is illiterate, added that she uses her wages to fund her children’s education and medical emergencies even though she complained bitterly that wages don’t reach them on time always.
Bhanumati’s story — the impact of her wages on her children’s future — was corroborated in a study conducted by the ministry of rural development and the National Council of Applied Economic Research in 2015. The study, which involved over 26,000 rural households, showed that children from MGNREGS households were likely to obtain higher levels of educational attainment than their non-MGNREGS peers, and were less likely to be working.
That “puzzle” — why did the rural poor engage with the MGNREGS despite the knowledge that payments were frequently delayed, and often truncated? — motivated Indrajit Roy, research fellow at Wolfson College, Department of International Development, University of Oxford, to research the scheme. His study, based on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with 200 labourers, their agricultural employers and bureaucrats in West Bengal, Bihar and Gujarat (none of the three states are exemplary MGNREGS states) revealed that workers opt for the scheme for a number of complex reasons.
First, said Roy, MGNREGS provides workers with what they perceive to be ‘dignified’ employment. “I met labourers who choose to work for the MGNREGS instead of for farmers who practise caste discrimination.”
Second, although labourers continue to migrate to cities and other prosperous rural areas in search of employment, working on the MGNREGS reduces their desperation for cash.
Third, the programme allows ‘self-selection’ rather than being selected through tests. This, Roy said, makes the rural poor confident that the State cares for them. Moreover, they look up to the State, not in the conventional ‘mai-baap’ sort of way, but as a provider of work.
Last, and I think this is a key one, they have a clearly articulated expectation that the MGNREGS is meant for poor people. They are able to demand work and wages because of this widespread expectation. Such expectations enhance poor people’s leverage with politicians, especially at panchayat level.
I hope the NDA does not lose sight of these while finalising the financial allocation for the scheme in this Budget.