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Much more than a survival scheme

Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey
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In the midst of the debates that prevail in this country over the feasibility of the world’s largest public works programme, the MGNREGA Sameeksha — an anthology of independent research studies and analysis on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, from 2006-2012 — is a significant innovation to evaluate policy and delivery. In bringing out MGNREGA Sameeksha , a collection of critical independent voices, released in English and Hindi by the Prime Minister on July 14, the Ministry of Rural Development provides a platform for evaluation of a law designed to assist the most invisible in India’s political spectrum. The Sameeksha is not a ‘new’ study. As the introduction explains, it is “an analytical anthology of all major research studies done on MGNREGA that were published in academic journals or came out as stand-alone reports”.

Summary of findings

No department, from the social sector or otherwise, has published a summary of findings of all the independent research studies conducted on its major programmes. To do so asserts confidence in independent evaluations, and the wisdom that the government would do well to consider such views and analyses. Given India’s very poor record of rural development, it was important that the world’s largest employment programme be evaluated by credible institutions and researchers. By bringing a summary of findings of all the studies together, Sameeksha facilitates informed understanding, analysis, implementation, and reform where necessary.

Sameeksha is an initiative of Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development, edited by Planning Commission Member Mihir Shah and compiled by a team led by Neelakshi Mann and Varad Pande. To ensure academic merit, suitable coverage of major studies, and veracity of reportage, the anthology was refereed by two prominent academics/writers; economist Jean Dreze, and the editor of the Economic and Political Weekly , C. Rammanohar Reddy. This anthology is finally a tribute to the MGNREGA, and the millions of workers who have diligently struggled against poverty and unequal implementation, and even violence in some cases to access their rights.

Evaluating MGNREGA on the basis of rigorous research, rather than anecdotal evidence, offers a rational framework for improvement, and rejects irrational demands for closure. It also becomes the basis for more informed discussion to write articles, conduct television studio debates, and even design policy initiatives.

In the midst of ill-informed adverse criticism, this compendium gives us a set of answers based on fact and not opinion.

Continuing critical comments and assertions beg for answers. Has the MGNREGA really built assets, or has it just been a compendium of useless earth work? Has it created a lazy workforce that is affecting our work culture? Has it negatively affected agriculture by drying up the labour market? Has the MGNREGA become the biggest source of corruption in rural India? Has it failed to arrest distress migration? Has it helped household income, and reduced hunger in the poorest households?

These papers provide answers premised on detailed research or study. For instance, the oft-repeated aggressive assertion that MGNREGA does not build useful assets has been made without the support of any study to justify this claim. These assertions arise very often from fleeting visits to roadside worksites, with insufficient time for anything more than an anecdote. This off-the-cuff dismissal of “useless earth works” arises from a group which often lives on the other side of a fractured India, for whom mud and dirt become synonymous! It also raises the pertinent question of what indeed is a productive asset — a village tank that recharges 40 wells, or only a work of brick and mortar.

Sameeksha has a whole chapter dedicated to studies on asset creation which, by and large, show that sustainable assets have been created. A study of the best performing water harvesting assets in Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Kerala for instance show the potential of these works where a majority of the assets studied had a return on investment of well over 100 per cent, with investment costs recovered in less than one year! Perception-based surveys, including those carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in three States showed that the vast majority of assets were being used, and the people found them useful.

Multiplier effect

This report should give policymakers and politicians a chance to take stock. Interestingly, the compendium effectively answers many of the basic criticisms of MGNREGA that have emanated from politicians and bureaucrats even within the system. The Prime Minister will hopefully acknowledge the findings contained in Sameeksha , and accept that MGNREGA is more than a lifeline for survival. Different studies have shown that it has provided livelihood and income security, decreased the incidence of poverty, increased food intake, reduced mental depression, positively affected health outcomes, and been successful as a self targeting scheme — as the poorest and most marginalised communities have sought work. In many States, it has decreased gender differential in wages, increased real wages accompanied by an increase in agricultural productivity and growth. This increase in agricultural productivity could be due to the watershed and water harvesting works, as well as the land development work on the fallow private lands of SC, ST and BPL families to make them productive. The studies do not bear out the assertion that MGNREGA has caused a shortage of farm labour. Importantly, some studies seem to indicate a significant multiplier effect on the rural economy suggesting, as the authors say, a need to study this aspect further.

The report also shows that there is poor implementation in many places. Average wages paid are lower than minimum wages; there is a distressing delay in the payment of wages; demand is not properly captured (an NSSO survey found 19 per cent of people who wanted work did not get it); dated receipts for work applications are not properly given; and the payment of unemployment allowance is a rarity. There is a shortage of staff, and there are many instances of irregular flow of funds. Non-compliance with proactive disclosure provisions such as muster rolls being available at worksites continues to be a problem in some States. As a result, leakages and corrupt practices continue to exist. While social audits in Andhra Pradesh have significantly increased awareness and identified fraud, Sameeksha notes that social audits are a facade in most other States.

Several initiatives have a mixed outcome. The Management Information System places the largest set of data of any public works programme in the public domain via the MGNREGA website, but States are still struggling to upload data online on a real-time basis. Ten crore bank and post office accounts have been opened, bringing about financial inclusion, and reduced corruption in wage payments, but the delay in payments through such accounts is a major cause of distress.

Many of these concerns obvious to those who work in rural India have been corroborated by the scope and rigour of academic research. The area specific outcomes have been no less significant. We have seen thanks to the MGNREGA offering alternative work, hundreds of bonded labour (Saheriya adivasis) in Rajasthan freed from generations of bondage. People have been saved from destitution in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh, women have been empowered and are participating in huge numbers in Tamil Nadu, and the programme is even showing very positive results in “non-NREGA” States like Himachal Pradesh and Kerala.

Academic studies contextualise experience and anecdote, within the framework of critical factual analysis. Policymakers cannot brush these aside as irrelevant. Ironically, the report also reveals the many issues and areas that have not been researched. It exposes the missed opportunities of the academia to invest in detailed and widespread study of this very unique right, entitlement and programme. Perhaps this report can help be a force multiplier for the studies conducted so far, which in turn will encourage more research.

The MoRD has also invited the Comptroller and Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of MGNREGA, and mentor the social audit process. The CAG oversight should enable a detailed appraisal of the shortcomings in implementation. These kinds of partnerships must become a regular activity not only within one Ministry, but in the government. It will help improve implementation and could be a creative way in which governance could be improved with the help of modes of independent evaluation and public participation.

(Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey are socio-political activists, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan)

An anthology of independent evaluations of MGNREGA shows that it has provided income security, improved health, narrowed the gender gap and created useful assets


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