THE RURAL job scheme, officially known as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), has received more brickbats than bouquets in its six year run. With Rs 1,66,000 crore spent between 2006 and 2012, many call it a government dole rife with corruption and lack of long term vision. Lately, claims about its negative impact on agriculture have also been made.
So what does a number of studies analysing both pros and cons of the scheme tell us? ‘Sameeksha’, a compilation of such findings brought out by the Ministry of Rural Development, offers a clearer if not exact picture. Livelihood security and social equality is up, workers have gained bargaining power, sustainability of assets is debatable and full and timely payment is still not a reality for many. As for migration to cities, those who want more money still move.
Gives work when needed…but payments are often delayed
MGNREGA aims to provide a steady source of income and livelihood security for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised. In 2011–12, nearly 5 crore households, which is around 25 per cent of all rural households in the country, were provided over 209 crore person-days of work in total. From 2006 to 2012, around 66 per cent of the total expenditure under MGNREGA was spent on worker wages. A survey of 1,500 households in three states found that the share of job scheme in income of the poor was highest in Andhra Pradesh (about 17 per cent). In Rajasthan this share was 10 per cent and in Maharashtra it was just 7 per cent.
Among landless households, the share was 20 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra and Rajasthan with nearly equal share of around 7 per cent). At the national level, the share of SCs and STs in the work provided has been high at 40–50 per cent across each of the years of the Scheme’s implementation. Also, the work came at a time when the people had no other work. Around 94 per cent of those enrolled in Andhra Pradesh reported that there was no other work available when they performed MGNREGS work. The figure for other states was 98 per cent for Madhya Pradesh and 86 per cent for Rajasthan. However, delay in payments has been one of the major issues plaguing the scheme.
The kind of impact the scheme has made is evident from a long term study which surveyed 2,500 households in Andhra Pradesh before its implementation in 2004 and later in 2006 and 2008. It was found that participation in the scheme had led to increase in intake of energy and protein and asset accumulation. A 12 per cent reduction in the incidence of reported depression and other mental health indicators was noticed with Rs 8 per capita fall in expenditure on health. This may not be termed a very significant reduction at first glance but the fact that both the share of health in household budget and cost of healthcare have continuously been rising in our country, it is a positive development. Another study found that those who worked in the programme gave up 1.6 fewer meals per week.
The awareness level about their rights is still very low among potential beneficiaries. In Madhya Pradesh 18 per cent households and in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, less than 10 per cent households were aware that if the administration fails to provide them, they are entitled to unemployment allowance. The data from National Sample Survey Office notes that around 19 per cent (June 2009 to July 2010) of the rural households sought but did not get employment under MGNREGA. Also, only 47 per cent households in Madhya Pradesh and 29 per cent households in Andhra Pradesh were aware that they can demand work any time of the year. The awareness about of any grievance redressal mechanism in the job scheme was also low. Field studies also indicate that the participation of gram sabhas remained very less than that mandated by law.
Checks distress migration…not the aspirational one
Ucchab Kumar’s family in Juba village of Odisha had been migrating every year to work in Andhra’s brick kilns for the past three generations. Assistance from an NGO helped the gram parishad construct a pond on his farm under MGNREGA. This minor investment not only protects the main paddy crop on his 2.5 acres but also provides protective irrigation to 5.5 acres of neighbouring farm land. The family has stopped migrating for work. Similar initiatives helped the drought-prone western Odisha helped reduced the number of migrating families by 45 per cent.
The job scheme has had a more direct and positive impact on reducing distress migration as compared to migration taken up for economic growth and other reasons. Studies indicate that it has reduced migration by providing work closer to home and decent working conditions. A study conducted in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, observed that the scheme brought down the migration levels from about 27 per cent to 7 per cent in the sample villages due to availability of work.Another case study from Bastar notes that in one block the number of people migrating declined from 4500 to 500 as a result of employment being provided close to home by MGNREGA. A survey of 240 households in the district of Sidhi in Madhya Pradesh also confirmed these findings; migration had reduced in sample areas by 60 per cent due to the availability of work.
However, it aspirational migration in search of better and more lucrative opportunities continues as before particularly because MGNREGA cannot match the wages of skilled labour in cities. In Rajsamand and Dungarpur districts of Rajasthan much of the MGNREGA workers were women and elderly who had discontinued migration while younger men migrated to urban centers for relatively higher incomes.
Builds sustainable assets… when community, funds and expertise are involved
MGNREGS, with its stress on creation of rural assets can be a harbinger of change in India but is it really that good? Since its inception, around 146 lakh works have been undertaken under the job scheme of which around 51 per cent were works related to water including water conservation, flood control, irrigation, drought proofing, renovation of traditional water bodies and micro-irrigation, and over 19 per cent works were related to rural connectivity. A study assessing seven best and seven worst works in nine states found that the worst assets had not followed MGNREGS processes including timely wage payments, good planning and high quality technical inputs etc. For instance, a single technical assistant in Tonk district of Rajasthan was found to be looking after works in 10–12 gram parishads where several assets created were rendered ineffective due to insufficient technical inputs in design and site selection.
Studies indicate that completion rate of works, just as in the case of quality of assets, is dependent on district/region-specific implementation of the Scheme and is affected by factors such as poor planning, lack of technical support, irregular flow of funds, and delayed payment. In Mandla, Madhya Pradesh and Narmada, Gujarat, a report found that while people started to work on MGNREGA, due to delay in wage payments they shifted back to lower-paying works. Also community involvement is essential. In Kerala, a study of 23 public ponds found that only one was being maintained by the community. Villagers, including those who were directly benefiting from the asset, asserted that it was the responsibility of the Gram Parishad to regularly clean and maintain the assets.
Public assets get good returns…private ones aren’t bad either
A significant share of MGNREGS works (12 per cent in 2011–12 and 20 per cent in 2010–11) was taken up on private land. In a study across Bihar, Rajasthan, Kerala and Gujarat, it was found that public assets recovered their investment cost faster, that is, 116 per cent in one year as against 36 per cent in one year for private assets. However, private assets were found to be better maintained and hence more sustainable, due to definite ownership and rights.In fact, the development of private property under the Scheme has the potential to contribute to more sustainable livelihood creation. In Gujarat, 10 farmers who had been provided private assets under the scheme were able to increase their area under cultivation from 15 to 34 hectares. So, do we stop making public assets? Not at all. Several surveys tell us that when village communities take enthusiastically to the idea with support of an able administration the results are positive on public assets too.
More water, greener farms…but the labour is gone
Mathura Bai and her family, consisting of her husband and five children, live in the drought prone tribal tract of Bagli tehsil in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. She inherited 2 bighas of rocky land, unsuitable for cultivation, and for livelihood the couple took to agricultural labour. In April 2007, under MGNREGA, field bunding work was undertaken in her land with support from a civil society organisation, reducing the risk of top soil run off, which enhanced productivity. The land development helped her harvest vegetables like chillies, cabbages and onions. In July 2009, Mathura Bai sowed 2 kilos of this seed in her land, and followed that up with 3 kilos a year later, ensuring fodder for her cattle. Many like Mathura Bai have gained from such interventions but more universal impact has been related to public water works which have led to Increase in area under irrigation, rise in groundwater recharge and improvement in soil quality through application of excavated silt.
A study in five districts of Madhya Pradesh noted that 70 per cent of the irrigation structures ensured perennial water across agricultural seasons for beneficiaries. In two districts, the irrigated land area increased by 19 per cent to 26 per cent. Another study increase in cultivate area and diversification of crops over previous years. Crops like Jowar, Bajra, Kodo, Makka and Arhar have been replaced by wheat, gram and vegetables due to increased availability of irrigation water. In Kerala, renovation and construction of ponds led to growth of commercial crops like ginger and sugarcane. A study conducted in 26 villages of Bihar found a per farmer increase of 5 per cent in the net sown area, 9 per cent in gross cropped area and 4 per cent rise in crop intensity. However, can all this be attributed to MGNREGS since farm productivity is also dependent on several other factors like weather conditions, technological interventions and quality of seeds? The jury is still out.
Also, research claims that whatever positive effect MGNREGS have had on agricultural productivity may be offset by a diversion of labour away from the farms as it offers higher wages. NSSO panel survey on MGNREGA in three states found that 84 per cent of households in Andhra Pradesh, 80 per cent in Madhya Pradesh and 61 per cent in Rajasthan were ‘agricultural labour’ households or ‘self-employed in agriculture’ households. However, data from 2010–11 suggests that 70 per cent of the works in the scheme were generated during the agriculture lean season. A more reliable picture emerges with synthesis of results from studies across 12 states. It suggests that this impact may vary from place to place.
For MGNREGS to have a major impact on farm labour markets, the volume of work offered under the scheme needs to be substantial during the peak agricultural season. In some areas of Rajasthan, Kerala, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh it was found that the impact of MGNREGA led to expansion of the labour market as it attracted new labour to the workforce whereas in Palakkad, Kerala, where the plantation economy demands farm labour throughout the year, it drew a sizeable, mostly female, workforce away from agriculture which led to rise in farm wages by 50–70 per cent.
A study using monthly wage data from the period 2000–11 for a panel of 249 districts across 19 States found that MGNREGA boosted the daily agriculture wage rate by 5.3 per cent thus putting more pressure on farm economy but meanwhile increasing the bargaining power of the unskilled labourers.
More women in the field… not many in decision making
Around 47 per cent of the total person-days generated have been by women. Women are participating in the scheme much more actively than they participated in all forms of recorded work. This may support the hypothesis that MGNREGS creates decent and favourable work conditions for them. Of the total women in a sample study, 50 per cent said that in the absence of MGNREGS they would have worked at home or would have remained unemployed.
In 2011–12, Kerala had the highest female participation rate at 93 per cent while Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir had the lowest, 18 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. At places where the market wages are higher than MGNREGS, men undertake jobs in the market and women seek employment under the scheme. However, non-availability of work-site facilities like crèches is a huge disincentive for women. Further, certain types of MGNREGS work also limit their participation. A report of the NSSO indicates that MGNREGS has reduced the traditional wage discrimination in public works as the average labour wage under the scheme was Rs 90.9 per day for men and Rs 87 per day for women per day. In other public works, the difference is larger with wages being Rs 98.3 for men and Rs 86.1 for women.
In a survey of 600 women workers across five districts of Chhattisgarh, it was observed that women respondents with a household income below Rs 8,000 decreased from 94 per cent to 57 per cent due to the scheme, indicating its importance for the poorest of the poor. Studies also indicate that women exercise independence in collection and spending of MGNREGA wages, indicating greater decision-making power within the households. In another survey across six states, 82 per cent of the widows in the sample regarded MGNREGS as a very important source of income.
Further, of the total sample, 67 per cent of the women stated that MGNREGS had helped them avoid hunger and 46 per cent said it had helped them avoid illness. However, women participation in the scheme is still limited to the field work. For long-term gender equality to be realised, women need to participate not only as workers but also in worksite management and in staff appointments, planning through participation in gram sabhas and social audits.
High on corruption…better activate self-defense mechanism
Fake entries in muster rolls, payment of less than notified wages, delay in payments, inadequate staff and irregular supervision are just a few of the various limitations being faced in the scheme. MGNREGA has inbuilt transparency and accountability mechanisms including pro-active disclosure and social audits. However, a study of 12 states across India found that social audit by gram sabha was seriously carried out in only 10 of the 40 works; in 10 more cases, it was done by the block administration, in four by NGOs and in two by the district administration. In case of more than a dozen works, no audit was carried out by anyone.
Similarly, a rapid appraisal of four districts in Karnataka, observed that social audits were yet to be attempted in most of the gram parishads in the sample districts. However, there are good practices where states have taken innovative steps towards developing and institutionalizing accountability tools into the governance system. One of the most interesting examples is in Andhra Pradesh where an independent directorate has been set up for conducting social audits as well as demarcated a set percentage of funds to ensure both flexibility and independence of this unit. The social audit process hinges on participation of youth volunteers, normally from worker households, who are trained to accept complaints and survey records as well as generate awareness about the audit. The volunteers also conduct a cross-check of official records through a door to door
verification of muster rolls and physical verification of works. On a pre-notified date, the reports, along with the findings of the social audit, are readout in public meetings attended by the labourers, official functionaries, political representatives and the media.
The officials respond to the issues which are read out in public and take corrective action. In a study conducted to assess the impact of social audits in three districts of Andhra Pradesh suggests that social audits had a significant impact on generating awareness among beneficiaries as well as in improving quality of implementation of the scheme.