Expanding the base

Replication of MGNREGA’s resounding success to urban areas is an emergent need

Ever since I joined the IAS in 1978 there have been numerous schemes catering to the creation of employment in the rural areas. I recall that we used to implement NREP (National Rural Employment Programme) and RLEGP (Rural Employment Guarantee Programme). The main objective of the schemes was the creation of employment and even at that time, I felt that there should be a greater focus on the creation of productive assets along with the generation of employment. I remember constructing primary schools with NREP funds in district Ghazipur, UP as a pilot which was later on appreciated by the state government. Looking at the positive impact of these schemes Government of India in 2006-07 launched the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act) in the year 2000 for the most backward blocks of the country. Subsequently, it was extended to 130 more blocks in 2007-08 and then finally to the entire country in 2008-09. The scheme had the backing of an Act of the Parliament and it was a rights-based approach having a clear legal framework. The Act prescribed that anybody in rural India who was desirous of getting employment could apply for the same and his Job Card would be prepared after which he would be given up to 100 days of employment in a year. The funds of MGNREGA were to be spent in such a manner that 60 per cent would be spent on the labour component and 40 per cent on the materials. This did lead to the creation of productive assets along with the generation of employments but it was a safety net for the poor unemployed in the rural areas. A shelf of projects was prepared for each village and works taken up accordingly. Immediate payment through a bank account was to be made to the beneficiary.

March 20 onwards, we have been in the grip of a pandemic that has led to people losing jobs and slipping back into poverty. We all witnessed the sorry spectacle of thousands of migrant labourers losing their jobs and returning to their villages with no source of income. The MGNREGA became a lifesaver for them at a time of tremendous economic crisis. Almost all the states resorted to this scheme, more evidently in the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

A comparative study shows that MGNREGA led to an increase in person days generated from 265.35 crore to 385.89 crore (45.43 per cent increase) between 2019-20 and 2020-21. It also shows that there was a 68.9 per cent increase in the number of households completing 100 man-day’s employment and there was a 37.59 per cent increase in the total number of households getting employment. The total number of employed individuals went up from 7.88 crore to 11.17 crore showing a 41.7 per cent increase. The total expenditure on the scheme also went up by 62.13 per cent.

Apart from the pandemic, MGNREGA has penetrated to 40 per cent of the rural households and has on average provided 40 to 55 days of work per household. Various evaluation studies have shown that the additional income earned through MGNREGA has increased the purchasing power of the people leading to improved quality of life for them. The poor have been able to afford food, spend more on the education of children and on health as well as on buying household goods and paying back debts. In particular, the impact on migration of labourers has been significant, leading to a three to four per cent reduction in the figure. In addition, it has led to women getting employment and wages equal to men helping them to become financially independent and also providing food security. It has also helped in creating useful assets for the community. It is significant to note that MGNREGA has had a positive impact on climate change as two-thirds of the projects taken up under MGNREGA have been in the natural resource management area like soil fertility, tree plantation and water conservation. In fact, more than 70 per cent of the projects have been related to water conservation and irrigation. This has led to the creation of a large carbon sink to sequestrate carbon.

The scheme can indeed be implemented better at the field level if certain actions are taken. First of all the scheme involves the mobilization of the community which should be done on priority basis to see that the benefits of the scheme reach the beneficiary. In fact, social audit is used as a tool for the community to monitor the implementation of the scheme and has given a lot of positive results. It is important to carry out extensive capacity-building of the Panchayati raj functionaries and also train the block and village level staff properly so that they are motivated and in a position to implement the scheme as per its objectives. There is also a case for increasing the maximum number of days prescribed from 100 to 150 to provide more relief to the people and also to increase the wage rate being given. Here, I must mention that one consequence of MGNREGA has been that the general wage rate in rural India has gone up about which the farmers sometimes complain. I think one should seriously consider having some flexibility in the labour and material component ratio to allow more projects of importance to be taken up. To make the scheme a success genuine, participatory planning must be ensured. More women should be given employment and the most important thing is the timely flow of funds so that wages are paid on time.

If properly implemented this scheme can be a game-changer. There is a case for not only continuing it with higher allocation but expanding it, particularly as the corona pandemic has still not abated. I personally used the scheme to counter the severe drought in the Bundelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh and not only gave life-saving employment to people but also implemented a lot of water conservation and harvesting measures. This is one of those schemes of the Government which has had a very positive outcome. There is, in these times of unemployment, an immediate need to widen the scope of this scheme and implement it in urban areas also where they can focus on water-related projects. MGNREGA, both in rural and urban areas, would be an excellent response to the problems of poverty and unemployment.

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