MGNREGA: A no ‘dole’ tale

By   Prof B Panda

Professor. Bibek Debroy’s recent ‘dole’ comment on MGNREGA, has once again, brought back the focus on the deficit of our understanding of the current concept, approach, and practice of development in a developing country like India. The approach of development that Prof. Debroy speaks of, in its essence, is known as ‘income approach to development’ and has more or less failed in many of the developing countries including India. This approach, at its core, considers economic growth as a panacea, for the solution of all kinds of developmental ills such as poverty, unemployment and economic exclusion in developing societies. Earlier development models in 1930s and 40s based on such an approach could not overcome poverty and unemployment. Modified centralised development practices based on income and assets approach to development such as Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) in India, could not also deliver the desired results on poverty and unemployment. Hence, economists and development practitioners relentlessly worked towards finding an appropriate concept and approach to development, based on which, contemporary development practices can be tailored and implemented. This led to the acknowledgement of the multi-dimensional nature of development and the concept became free from its long identification with economic growth. As a fall-out of this new thinking, qualitative aspect of development became as important as the quantitative aspect. Qualitative dimension refers to the social, institutional, cultural, environmental and technological arrangements and realisations of activities and ends in a society. Therefore, today, the evolved concept of development is ‘sustainable development’ and its important cardinal components are economic, social and environmental sustainability. Along with the evolution of the concept of economic development, the approach to development also has evolved. After, the path breaking work of Prof Amartya Sen and others, under-development today in developing societies, is explained in terms capability deprivation of individuals and communities. Hence, development is all about enhancing the vector of capability of individuals, households and communities. In conformity to this current thinking on development i.e. promotion of sustainable development through capability enhancement, a multitude of innovative developmental interventionist programmes have been introduced in the developing world by respective governments. One such programme in independent India is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Although initially rolled out as a wage employment programme, subsequently it has proved to be an effective experimentation in contemporary development practice. The programme takes care of three of the important components of sustainable development discussed earlier in this write up. It provides a critical minimum income to families in the form of guaranteeing at least 100 days of manual work to any household whose adult members volunteer to take up such work. In this way, it ensures a critical minimum of economic security to the poorest of the poor. Secondly, the types of works allowed under this programme, basically aim at improving the natural resource base of the rural economy and thereby are mandated to promote environmental sustainability. Thirdly, mandatory provisions incorporated in the Act/Guidelines such as convening the Gram Sabha(VEC in Meghalaya) at least twice in a year, preparing a Shelf of Projects and getting it approved in the Gram Sabha, social audit, village vigilance committee, simultaneous entry of work and payment details in job card and muster roll, immediate entry of such details into the MGNREGA website, ombudsman at the district level, payment (wherever possible) through bank/post office passbooks etc.; are meant to create the required social sustainability aspect of economic development. This is all about the theoretical justification of the genesis and existence of MGNREGA.

Now let us come to MGNREGA as a development practice. I visited over a dozen states as a member of few independent committees of Government of India on MGNREGA, often without bureaucrats, with complete autonomy to select villages in the remotest rural parts of these states just five minutes ahead of our scheduled visits. These villages were instantly selected based on our own assessment of certain characteristics of exclusion and social group composition. In spite of shortcomings and difficulties in the programme, my candid observation, is that, in good number of places, MGNREGA has become a movement, be it in remote villages of Anantpur District in Andhra Pradesh in the South or Birbhum in West Bengal in the East, Jalore in Rajastan in the West and East Garo Hills in Meghalaya in the North East. By no stretch of imagination is MGNREGA found to be a ‘charity’ or a ‘dole’ as pronounced by Prof. Debroy. The poor have worked in plantations, rural connectivity, water conservation, irrigation channels, land terracing and development of school playgrounds and have contributed to creation of assets and environmental goods. MGNREGA has generated income and employment for the poorest; it has created community assets and infrastructure for the society without involving the institution of contractors. It has made women’s mobilisation and empowerment a reality. One of our appraisals of the scheme way back in 2009 in the states of Meghalaya and Sikkim respectively showed that, approximately 69% and 72% of the workers in MGNREGA were women. It has made rural labour market comparatively efficient by increasing agricultural wages, which successive governments were finding difficult to operationalise through their periodic administrative dictates of fixing minimum wage for agricultural labourers. This has also created pressure in the rural economy to improve the terms of trade (TOT) for agriculture vis-à-vis industry and services sectors. After the relative failure of the land reforms programme in rural independent India, no other programme has changed the rural social power structure as MGNREGA has done in states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha. In the remote village of Nizamabad district in Andhra Pradesh, I visited in 2011, the large farmer-landlord lobby did not initially allow, the Dalits to work under MGNREGA, by conniving with the programme officer. However, the Dalits got mobilised and complained of non-provisioning of works as per MGNRGA act to the District Programme Coordinator (DPC). This finally, broke the prevailing power equation.

Recently, I visited the interiors of East Garo Hills. The district and block functionaries work under very challenging and difficult circumstances there, because of the presence of insurgency, absence of road transport and other basic socio-economic overheads . However, it has done very well in terms of average annual employment provided per household which is 93 man days during 2011-12. The number of households which have completed 100 days of work during the same period, is 34 %, which is also very high. But insurgencyhas affected the implementation of many of the rural developmental programmes, including PMGSY. MGNREGA is the only programme that has been to a great extent spared, because, people have identified themselves with this programme and the mobilisation is near-complete. In cases, like Rongap-Mikilsimgrey VEC, some of the households have worked in excess of 100 days to complete the ongoing projects, for which they have not claimed any money. MGNREGA is a great safety net for the rural areas of this district and has saved the district from experiencing severe economic and social chaos.

In fact, the real practical opposition to this programmes does not come from the neoclassical economists, but from, many of the sister and line departments of the Government like Forests, Agriculture, Irrigation, RWD, Horticulture, Tourism etc. including schemes implemented by the same ministry of rural development, Govt. of India and provides a convergence point for them. But barring few, many of these departments, do not want to converge with MGNREGA, as they apprehend that, pressure may build on them to operationalise the MGNREGA norms and process in the implementation of their developmental works. They don’t want these norms and processes to be benchmarked in their programs and plans. Frankly speaking, there are many other programmes implemented in rural areas by different departments of state and central agencies, where, the proportion of leakage and deceit is higher, but because they don’t undergo the sustained scrutiny of general public and print and electronic media, they are not in the limelight.

However, this is not to say that all is well with MGNREGA. There is corruption in MGNREGA (for example existence of ghost job card holders), there is malfunctioning of the institutions and provisions made under MGNREGA. There are distortions with respect to the issue of equity and inclusion under MGNREGA. Questions are also asked on the quality of assets created under MGNREGA. Well, being a flagship programme of the government, all these issues are important and definitely, need be addressed. However, these issues and distortions do not warrant dubbing this programme, as a ‘dole’.

Good economics (growth) based on the centrality of market and supplemented by government, requires a reasonable degree of individual and community capability and freedom space. A large part of today’s rural India lacks that reasonable minimum. To create that reasonable minimum, ensuring of a critical minimum level of income, equity, mobilisation, self confidence to the unskilled hapless poor women and men, is the first and foremost requirement. As long as this eludes us, MGNREGA will remain relevant. The success of MGNREGA, thus, lies how quickly these capabilities are created in individual and community space, so that we positively make MGNREGA irrelevant. Even if we attribute political motive to MGNREGA, the genesis and continuity of the programme is well grounded on sound economics of development, that poverty stricken part of rural India, has been desperately craving for, to see it roll out as a development practice.

(The author is Professor, Department of Economics, NEHU, Shillong).

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