The role of MGNREGS in the climate crisis
While the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has been a valuable employment tool and safety net, as seen in the migrant crisis, its role in building ecosystems resilient to the climate crisis is being increasingly recognised. There is now an urgent need to bring upfront the scheme’s potential in addressing matters of lives and livelihoods while combating the climate emergency.
MGNREGS is climate-smart, contributing to both mitigation and adaptation. Its coping strategies lower the risks posed by the climate crisis while providing legally mandated demand-driven employment to resource-poor households.
In 2020-21, an unprecedented degree of work was undertaken across 711 districts and 268,524 gram panchayats. Of the total expenditure of ₹110,900 crore, about two-thirds were on works related to natural resource management (NRM). The mammoth scale of the NRM component in MGNREGS provides a major boost to improving the productive capacity of land, water and forest resources. This helps reduce the vulnerability to climate risk as groundwater availability increases, soil fertility improves, tree cover is enhanced, drought- and flood-proofing measures are put in place.
MGNREGS’s contribution towards livelihood security and creation of durable assets is well-quantified with a record of dug wells, farm ponds, check dams, desilted tanks and trees planted, updated regularly on the official website. However, studies that measure the contribution of MGNREGS towards improving the adaptive capacity of the beneficiary households have remained few and far between.
A 2009 study by NH Ravindranath at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) demonstrated that the scheme was improving resilience to climate risks in some drought-prone regions. A subsequent report (2018) of the IISc, after assessing the adaptive capacity of 12 different development schemes, rated MGNREGS as foremost in effectiveness. A recent study (2021) by the Centre for Science and Environment highlights the critical import of water conservation to arrest the adverse effects of the climate crisis. It concludes that MGNREGS is the “world’s biggest adaptation programme as it harnesses the labour of people to invest in building the wherewithal to fight drought and build resilience”.
The capacity of MGNREGS to deliver on the mitigation front takes into account that land is both a source and sink of carbon. Land degradation from large-scale destruction of forests, soil erosion and intensive farming accounts for about a quarter of the global greenhouse gases. Trees in agricultural landscapes, better-managed watersheds, forests and farmlands lead to enhanced carbon sequestration both above and below the ground.
India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the 2015 Paris Agreement refers to the country’s commitment to generate an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3.0 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. Going by present trends, target achievement will prove to be a major challenge. In the Third Biennial Update Report (BUR) submitted by the Union government to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in February, MGNREGS’s contribution to sequester carbon was assessed at 62 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2017-18 from cumulative works implemented. This performance needs to be enhanced.
To strengthen MGNREGS, the following needs to be done: Provide for full funding to make it truly demand-driven; deepen the scope of convergence by proactively linking farm assets with climate-smart agriculture technologies and practices; develop robust methodologies for measurement and accounting of environmental services; commission more independent studies and surveys that can quantify the scheme’s adaptation and mitigation capacity to climate risks; and factor into the feedback proformas not just the numerical count of works being undertaken but also the environmental services provided. It is time to acknowledge MGNREGS as a climate-smart green employment generation programme. In a world that will continue to warm, the rural poor will suffer its worst consequences. As a public intervention, Climate-smart MGNREGS appears to be our best bet.
Rita Sharma is a former secretary, ministry of rural development and served as secretary to the National Advisory Council
The views expressed are personal