Rising groundwater levels, checking soil erosion and enriching the soil with organic carbon — a new study assessing the on-the-ground environmental impact of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in four States has revealed that the flagship programme had a long-term greening effect apart from providing employment to the rural populace and building infrastructure.

The planting of trees under the programme also helped sequester carbon from the air and thus mitigate the causes of climate change, claims the study coordinated by the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science.  

The study to evaluate whether the job guarantee scheme was actually fulfilling its claims of providing environmental benefits and reducing vulnerability to climate risks was initiated at the request of the Union Ministry of Rural Development. It was conducted in four selected districts in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, covering a sample size of 2,057 households. Interviews with beneficiaries, as well as objective measurements of indicators such as soil organic carbon, soil erosion, ground water level and biomass were used to compare the scenarios before (2006-07) and after (2011-12) the implementation of the scheme.

Almost 80 per cent of the works implemented under MGNREGA in the four selected districts were linked to natural resources such as surface or ground water, soil, croplands, and even wastelands used for forestry. Given the importance of the environmental benefits of the projects that invest in such natural resources, the scheme “should focus less on physical infrastructure, barring exceptional cases, since there are other developmental programmes that can take care of such infrastructure requirements,” recommended the authors of the study. They also emphasised that asset maintenance, technical support and decentralised decision-making are critical to maximising the green benefits of the scheme.

The study found that the MGNREGA projects on water conservation and harvesting, drought-proofing, irrigation and renovation of traditional water bodies have had a significant impact on water resources. For example, even as groundwater levels fall across the country, the studied villages all recorded an increase, or at least maintenance, of groundwater levels despite growing extraction, indicating that MGNREGA works such as check dams, percolation tanks, and tank desilting seem to have paid off. In three-fourths of the villages, this has also led to an increase in the area irrigated by groundwater sources, potentially resulting in better crop yields.

So far as irrigation from surface water goes, MGNREGA works led to increased irrigated area in 21 of 30 studied villages. Drinking water availability — both for humans and livestock — were found to have improved.

One important indicator of the fertility and productivity of land resources is the organic matter or carbon content found in soil. The study found that in 72 per cent of the 899 beneficiary sample plots, soil organic matter had increased in comparison to control plots without any MGNREGA works. Projects such as land levelling, conservation bench terracing, contour and graded bunding, field bunding, pasture development, silt application and drought proofing have also helped reduce the surface runoff of topsoil and thus aided the fight against soil erosion in 82 per cent of the sample plots.

These measures helped increase the area under crop cultivation as well as improved crop yields by anything between 46 and 100 per cent in the districts under study. Along with the forestry and horticulture works carried out in 31 villages, these measures also helped in long-term sequestration of carbon. Reducing livelihood vulnerability also helps build resilience to the impact of climate change in these villages, the study found.

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