How MGNREGS transformed rural India in an environmentally sustainable manner
To quench the thirst of her cattle, Raina Devi had to chase her cows and goats to a hand pump and pump water for them so each one could get their day’s share of drinking water. This was eight years ago. Such was the water crisis in her village that most villagers couldn’t think of growing wheat or other crops ever.
Since women in her village got their Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) job cards, the village and their lives have undergone a dramatic transformation.
“Women have found dignity. I did not have money to buy even chillies or salt on my own. Now I have enough money in my bank account to care for my children and household needs. There is enough water for our cattle and a beautiful grazing ground that we have made for them under MGNREGS. We can also comfortably grow food and fodder crops,” says Raina Devi over the phone from Bhawanipura in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara.
In Raina Devi’s village, three water harvesting structures (WHS) have been constructed on the common land for improved water availability. Water availability in around 12 wells near pastures has improved immensely, improving water availability for agriculture and crop diversification, according to assessments by Foundation of Ecological Security which has been working with women there.
Around 158 acres of commons are covered under MGNREGS in Bhawanipura which includes digging trenches, making bunds, bori bunds, boundary trench, grass seeding and planting of native tree species such as Desi Babool (Acacia Nilotica), Ber (Ziziphus), Khejdi (Prosopis cineraria), Neem (Azadirachta indica) etc. for improved water, fodder and fuel availability. There are norms for managing restored commons such as monthly meetings of village institutions, rotational grazing, no felling of trees on common land among others.
Raina Devi’s story captures how MGNREGS — this is the 15th year of the scheme — has turned around lives, mainly through its natural resource management (NRM) works which includes a large number of waters harvesting structures and soil moisture conservation works. To be sure, the scheme has come under criticism, but it has played a key role in transforming rural India in an environmentally sustainable manner, while providing a safety valve to citizens in distress and in need for work, visible during the pandemic.
The nature of MGNREGS work
The MGNREGS Act, which came into force on February 2, 2006, guarantees at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a year to those households whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
In phase I, it was introduced in the 200 most backward districts in the country, and 130 additional districts in phase II during 2007-08. The remaining districts were covered in phase III after 2008. In 2014, MGNREGA Schedule-I was amended, which mandated that at least 60% expenditure will be on agriculture and allied activities. Consequently, a list of permissible works under the Act now include nearly 75% activities that directly improve water recharge and water conservation efforts.
The major works taken up under NRM include check dams, ponds, renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, embankment, field bunds, field channels, plantations, trenches etc. In 2020-21 alone 298,323 water related works worth ₹8,80,917.25 were carried out according to data on MGNREGS website.
According to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment, based on data from MGNREGA management information system, in the last 15 years, 30 million water conservation-related works; or 50 works/village were taken up. Potentially, these structures conserved 28,741 million cubic metres of water which can fill up, say the entire area of the Udaisagar lake in Udaipur, the analysis said.
“We think 100 days’ guaranteed employment is only a limited aspect of MGNREGS, in fact an ornamental one. It is much more than that. We visited 16 villages where MGNREGS was implemented 2006 onwards and saw the transformation ourselves. By law, MGNREGS has to devote 60% of all works to water-related structures. This has helped immensely in countering drought, harvesting water in parched areas, making agriculture and cattle rearing possible and arresting migration of people from these villages. It’s a climate adaptation strategy. The government should study the scheme’s potential carefully,” said Richard Mahapatra at Centre for Science and Environment.
The human impact
Rukmani Devi of Kundeli village in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district said each of the 200 women in her village who are engaged in MGNREGS works earn nearly ₹20,000 a year. “It’s not small. For women who couldn’t earn anything, its very significant. But I think we have benefitted more by building common water harvesting structures. For example, because of the grazing ground, we have developed we now keep a large number of cattle. The cattle give us milk which helps support the nutrition of our children. A water source for our cattle was 5km away before these structures were developed. Now there is water available during all seasons in our wells also.”
Around 350 families are able to grow crops such as wheat, mustard and gram etc after the implementation of MGNREGS here.
The scheme also turned out to be a life saviour for many who returned back to their villages during the Covid 19 lockdown.
“Many women came to seek help. We helped them get job cards. They have worked with us in building some major structures this year. They will not return to the cities — Mumbai, Surat, Delhi anymore because they can see how MGNREGS can help them sustain here,” said Leela Devi, also from Kundeli.
In Bihar, which witnessed the return of around 2.5 million migrants during Covid 19 lockdown last year, MGNREGS helped the state government to provide instant jobs. Principal secretary, rural development department, Arvind Chaudhary said about 2.174 million man days of work were created under MGNREGS this year (2020-21) as compared to 1.427 million man days last year.
“During the pandemic, when a large number of migrants were forced back to their villages, programmes like MGNREGS provided critical support through wage employment and helped them cope with the crisis. This, combined with restoration and creation of durable community assets like water harvesting structures and regeneration of grazing lands have contributed to the resilience of local agriculture and livestock production systems, said Sanjay Joshie, Executive Director, Foundation for Ecological Security. He added that the scheme has been crucial in improving the resilience of rural economies and mitigating the impact of climate crisis.
HT visited Kokdakhar, a village in Chhattisgarh’s Kabirdhan district in 2019, where farmers were bracing for their crops to fail for the second year in a row because of an erratic monsoon. The only resource that was helping them tide over monsoon vagaries was a large earthen dam, 4.5m deep and 62m long, that the villagers particularly tribal women toiled for months to build. The dam captures the flow from ridge to valley, stores water and arrests erosion.
Tiharo Bai, who was among the 1,100 people who has built the dam, farm ponds and check dams under MGNREGS, said the assets had become life savers.
“We got some money under the 100 days scheme when there was no work. We also got water to survive the drought. There are only three hand pumps, everything else has run dry,” said Tiharo Bai, who belongs to the Baiga tribe.
Returning to where it all began
Bandlapalli, a sleepy village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapuramu district hit national headlines on February 2, 2006, when the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh launched the MGNREGS here.
Bandlapalli, with a population of 2,560 people, was perennially drought-affected and witnessed distress migration of labourers due to lack of sufficient water to raise any crops. But, one-and-a-half decades later, Bandlapalli has become a role model for others in implementing water conservation schemes, thanks to MGNREGS.
According to the project director of Anantapuramu District Water Management Agency, N Venugopal Reddy, MGNREGS has transformed the lifestyle of the villagers who used to migrate to long distances in search of livelihood.
“Distress migration has halted. Every eligible person was given the job card and works were taken up for creation of water storage infrastructure to store runaway water from hill slopes,” he said.
The government took up construction of “staggered trenches” with a gap of three to four metres between two trenches, which served as a sort of watersheds to capture water from the streams passing through the hill slopes. These water ponds have not only improved the groundwater table to a large extent, but also helped development of greenery that retained moisture. The villages were able to raise horticulture crops and regular crops like maize, Bengal gram and green gram.
The groundwater table in the village has increased substantially by 12.6 metres. “Now, there is a perennial water source in the village,” Reddy said.
According to official figures, in the last 15 years, as many as 517,000 man days of work were created in Bandlapalli, and an amount of ₹9.33 crore was spent on MGNREGS works, including ₹7.92 crore towards the wage component. As many as 2,128 households were provided 100 days wage employment during this period.
The place where India’s most ambitious rural employment scheme began 15 years ago is, today, reaping the dividends of this avatar of India’s welfare state.
(With inputs from Subhash Pathak)