India is a vast country and every year either the quantity or the distribution of rainfall is deviant in one part or the other. Moreover, Indian farming is still predominantly rain-fed. In such a scenario, the MGNREGA can do two very important jobs: Drought relief and drought mitigation.
Recently, the NDA discussed the MGNREGA in Parliament. Two issues were addressed: One, the quality of assets being built and second, the leakages in the payment structure.
The government has proposed a change in the ratio of wage and material from 60:40 to 51:49; the change in the wage-material ratio needs discussion. The objective of this Act is to provide work for unskilled labour. This gets diluted with this new ratio. Also if the ratio is calculated at the district level — and not gram panchayats — then the apprehension is that the politically vocal rural area of a district will spend more on materials and the politically weak constituency will end up getting only the wage part. Then the intention of creating better assets with more material will be defeated.
Our experience shows that the MGNREGA is very popular in dryland and rain-fed regions, and among landless agricultural labourers and small and marginal farmers and in the non-kharif season. The work list usually includes: Building unmetalled roads, water storage and watershed structures, and levelling of land. The above two aspects prove that the demand is from poor families and also from regions that have poor infrastructure and resource base. So it is obvious that these types of works do not need material but better design support.
Successful experiments across country have proved that if assets are designed based on the watershed principle, if people are made part of the decision-making process to decide the type and location, then assets have proved much more effective, durable and useful to the community.
Watershed is the only way to go if we want to lessen our dependence on rain and help small farmers to do a second season of cropping. This is possible if we create a cadre of MGNREGA administrators (gram rozgar sevaks) and technical assistants (barefoot engineers from the community). These people can become the pillars of the MGNREGA and also work with panchayati Raj functionaries to make the Act work in their villages.
The NDA has come to power on the mandate of good governance. This can be achieved if the panchayat raj bureaucracy is strengthened. The MGNREGA has already challenged the present (read feudal) power dynamics in villages. Now what needs to be seen is if this government has the political will to ensure that the Act lives up to its potential and tilts the power balance in favour of the rural poor.
(Ashwini Kulkarni is with PragatiAbhiyan and a member of the National Consortium of CSOs working on MGNREGA. The views expressed by the author are personal.)