How to Reform and How not to

  • An impression has gained ground in recent weeks that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)government at the Centre is inimical to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Part of the reason for this is the notion that this was a “partisan” programme benefitting only a certain political dispensation.
  • This year, the National Award for Leadership in MGNREGA Implementation went to the Government of Chhattisgarh.
  • The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh is a strong votary of the programme, and under his dynamic leadership, some of the most innovative work in implementing MGNREGA on watershed principles has been initiated.
  • I can personally testify to the remarkable inputs that almost all State governments gave to the committee set up under my chairmanship to reform the programme and create MGNREGA 2.0, which helped to introduce a large number of new productivity- enhancing works and build synergies between MGNREGA and agriculture.
  • The NDA government is rightly concerned with the many failures of the programme in not being able to generate more than 50 days of work per annum, in the poor quality of assets created, in the delays in payments to workers and also in the inability of the really needy areas of the country to take full advantage of the programme.
  • All of these problems need to be addressed. The best way to do so is to study where the programme has been able to deliver. I have in mind the thousands of villages where water harvesting structures have been created, agriculture has improved, nearly 100 days of work has been provided, distress migration has reduced and women have been empowered. MGNREGA is one programme where all this has been rigorously documented by scholars from all over the world. This research also throws up insights on the features that characterise locations where success has become possible:
    • Availability of strong technical support to the main implementing agency, the gram panchayat;
    • Capacities to undertake decentralised planning exercises and creation of a robust shelf of works;
    • Awareness among MGNREGA work-seekers of their entitlements and procedures under the programme;
    • Active and vibrant gram sabhas, which debate and decide the works to be undertaken and all procedures related to the programme;
    • Open and effective social audits that check corruption;
    • Accountable gram panchayats, where the leadership responds to the legitimate demands and grievances of the people;of wages.
  • The importance of this exercise for a programme like MGNREGA is that demand for work has been shown to be the highest in these most backward subdistricts.
  • What should not be done, however, is to say that work-seekers in other areas of the country will not be provided work on demand. The very raison d'eˆtre of MGNREGA is that it is a legal guarantee for work.
  • For the self-identification of beneficiaries is the most powerful element of the programme. But,by the same token, when there is demand for work, it cannot and must not be denied.
  • Finally, to the vexed question of the wage-material ratio, which has been fixed at 60:40 under the programme. There is a notion that it is this ratio that has led to the creation of poor quality assets under the programme.
  • Each of these structures was designed in a truly location-specific manner, based on a deep understanding and study of local geology, soil types, topography and rainfall patterns and based on intricate engineering techniques, designed and perfected over centuries of practice, deeply grounded in rich, local, cultural traditions.
  • As a matter of fact, excellent earthen engineering work has been done under MGNREGA, where care was taken to learn from these traditions and also to empower gram panchayats to understand the principles underlying this watershed approach.
  • There is, however, a case to be made for permitting greater flexibility in this ratio in certain parts of the country, where material costs tend to be exorbitantly high: the Himalayan region, for instance, where transport costs are steep, or deserts where long distances need to be traversed. In such regions, lowering the wage-material ratio could actually enable more work to be provided under MGNREGA.