It’s the world’s biggest, but the job guarantee programme or NREGA only allows villagers to work with mud. The government wants to expand it — we show how to create white- and blue-collar jobs for the unemployed and build assets, not just give dole. Ten million people could benefit.
He dropped out of school in Class 4, worked as a farm labourer through his teen years and adulthood, got married, had a son — and then decided to give up working the fields and transform his life.
So Sharad Govardhan Gholav, the lean, soft-spoken, 32-year-old villager, took a bus to an industrial training institute in northern Maharashtra’s Loni village, some 300 kilometres north of the state capital of Mumbai.
He was earning Rs 40 a day in the fields; after a six-month training course, he has a job as a welder for Rs 3,000 a month. And even bigger dreams."I’m going to start a workshop of my own in my village," he says.
Put skills development training under a project of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) — the world's largest social security programme, which pays for 100 days of employment a year — and it could change the lives of millions of youngsters, like the training did for Gholav.
“I bought a TV. I repaired my home. My life is different now,” he says, showing off the things he has learnt to make at the institute: A shoe rack, a window grille, a cowshed mesh and a weed pruner.
Behind him in the buzzing, sprawling hall, dozens of men in blue overalls stitch and weld, paint and chisel. They are all youngsters from villages like Gholav’s, who have studied up to Class 10 or Class 12. But they can now look forward to guaranteed employment — every student that has passed out of the institute in the last decade (there are 1,500 each year) has found employment.
“My friends work in the fields for a few rupees a day. I want to work in a company,” says 18-year-old Jadhav Dadasaheb Ahir of Kolka village, now training to be an electrician.
Across rural India, lakhs of educated youngsters are struggling to find work — and then being forced to migrate to cities, depriving villages of educated human resources and adding to an unending cycle of urban chaos.
So we suggest a series of changes to scale up work under the Rs 16,000-crore NREGA projects, which gave work to 45 million people last year, to curb rural migration and transform village economies.
Under NREGA, villagers can currently only work as labourers, digging small canals, building or repairing ponds, doing anything, in fact, that does not involve working with concrete. The idea was to keep out contractors who could potentially exploit the labourers.We propose bringing rural blue- and white-collar jobs under NREGA — for example in Loni village, the cost of training someone like Ahir could come from the government. And the four-month course would change a farm labourer into a blue-collar worker.
“This is a good idea and highly imperative,” says Y.K. Alagh, chairman of the Indian Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat. “The skills development programme can easily be integrated with NREGA.”
Alagh, a former minister for statistics and programme implementation, estimates that there are 10 million such people who could benefit from NREGA-backed skills development. And India has a separate Rs 30,000-crore skills development budget this year that could be dipped into too.
Back at Loni, about 10 kilometres down the road from Gholav and Ahir’s centre, an agriculture and dairy sciences institute trains farmers to work in orchards and dairies.
“NREGA projects are on in the villages, but the work there is manual,” says the tall, portly Deokar Bapusaheb Suryabhan (49), principal of the institute. “They dig roads. Our students do gardening in big farms, flower cutting and arrangement, run greenhouses and grow vegetables.”
All these are job-creation projects. All could come under NREGA.
In Uttar Pradesh, the state government is set to do exactly this, allowing Dalit job applicants under NREGA to build orchards and fish tanks on their land and get paid for it.
“Within a couple of years, the people now working as farm labourers will become employers. We are considering a lot of innovations in NREGA,” says Rohit Nandan, principal secretary for rural development in the Uttar Pradesh government.
“This is, in some senses, the world’s largest ecological programme,” adds Sunita Narain, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “You have to build assets, not dig mud. I do definitely believe that NREGA as a labour-intensive scheme can be expanded imaginatively.”
So we propose that the ban on brick-and-mortar work under the law end. To avoid exploitation, contractors should be made to employ labourers only from NREGA lists, and pay them the mandatory minimum wage.
And why shouldn’t schools, health centres and roads be built using local labour, under NREGA? This would help reduce the migration of labourers — a Jharkhand labourer would no longer be forced to go to Mumbai to seek work. View Larger Map
NREGA wages must also be made uniform across states: A minimum of Rs 100 per day. The NREGA should be expanded to include “white-collar” jobs in villages — teachers, midwives and part-time health workers.
If all these innovations involved even 10 educated youngsters in every gram sabha (village council), they would touch the lives of 60 lakh (6 million) people across the country’s 6 lakh villages.
Which would transform the lives of people like Manoj Kumar (21) of Dubey Purwa village in Uttar Pradesh. Kumar, and Arts graduate, is desperate for work as a teacher.
For a few months every year, the young men in the village dig ponds and build mud roads under NREGA. But Kumar couldn’t join them even if he wanted to. “He can’t use the spade well, so he gives tuitions at a nearby private school,” says his father Ramesh Chand, as they sit on a wooden cot strung with jute rope. “He gets Rs 500 a month. But sometimes they don’t pay him for two months.”
(With inputs from Vanshika Sahni, Anamika Dutt and Ritu Raj)