The Sunday Deep Dive

Job scheme, a mixed bag for rural labourers

Mohanambal, a mother of two grown-up sons and a resident of the Ongur village of Villupuram district, does not say much, but makes her point forcefully: “I would be working like a bonded labourer again under any big landowning agriculturist, if there was no Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).”

The relevance of the scheme keeps coming up repeatedly in discussions between development specialists, academicians, politicians and opinion-makers, even as it has completed 11 years since it was first implemented. In the latest Union budget, the Central government allocated ₹48,000 crore, the highest allocation since the launch of the scheme.

It was on February 2, 2006 that the scheme took off at Villupuram and five other districts of Tamil Nadu. Ongur, located just off the busy Chennai-Tiruchi National Highway, has been implementing it since then.

Broadly, the MGNREGS envisages providing 100 days of work to each rural family, especially to those belonging to economically weaker sections of society. Unskilled manual labour is the key element.

Mohanambal is not alone in explaining the continued importance of the MGNREGS or, in popular parlance, NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) or, in Tamil, “Nooru Naal Velai Thittam (100-day job scheme).”

Muniyamma of the same village; Gowri of the nearby Kambur village; Roopinilakshmi of the Konai village in Gingee block and Poongavanam of Malligaimedu village in the neighbouring district of Cuddalore are equally, if not more, emphatic in insisting that the “Nooru Naal Velai Thittam” should continue. They all take pride in what they do as their work involves hard labour.

In a place like Gingee, hilly with hard rock formation, removing the earth or silt from a pond is not that easy. “But, this is what I have been doing,” says Usha, showing her palms with their calluses to make her point. On Tuesday last, she and 90 other women were busy desilting a minor tank in Konai, braving the afternoon heat.

The scheme has seen the execution of a range of activities, from restoration of water bodies to excavation of farm ponds on lands belonging to small and marginal farmers, tree plantation to establishing vermi-compost units and providing labour for setting up individual house latrines. In Ongur, a nursery has been set up and it will soon sell, if everything works out, one lakh saplings.

The support of some of the women in these rural pockets of the State for the scheme has only gone up after they started receiving their wages through bank accounts about four years ago.

“When the payment was made by cash, I did not save much as I tend to spend the money immediately,” says Muniyamma, who is in her 30s. “Now, I am able to save some money and attend to some requirements of my children.”

Apart from the sense of economic empowerment these women have received, the beneficiaries are, by and large, members of the self-help groups (SHGs), which have paved the way for strengthening their habit of savings.

G. Palanithurai, Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayat Raj Studies in the Department of Political Science and Development Administration of the Gandhigram Rural Institute, has studied the implementation of the MGNREGS in Tamil Nadu and other States at great depth. He says women, apart from getting exposed to the working of formal institutions such as banks, become more aware of their entitlements and, more than often not, develop the quality of presenting a good argument.

Hari K. Nagarajan, Professor and RBI Chair in Rural Economics, Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) in Gujarat, who has carried out a number of studies, including one on the effects of the scheme in seven select villages across Tamil Nadu along with Prof. Palanithurai and Anirudh Tagat, senior researcher of Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai, says that the work reveals that rural households, especially women members of the households, are “rational decision-makers.”

Income constraint

The main factor that stops them from taking such decisions is the income constraint. The MGNREGS has helped relax this constraint. As a result, “the households are seeking information about what to feed their children, and about spending, healthcare, technology and public goods in general,” Prof. Nagarajan explains.

Notwithstanding certain merits of financial inclusion, some women beneficiaries of the MGNREGS are not that enamoured of having bank accounts. They say their plight has only worsened in the post-demonetisation days.

For instance, Thilakam of Ongur finds it extremely difficult to go to her bank to get the passbook updated. Thilakam has two complaints: One, she does not know what her wage rate is, as invariably the wages are paid late these days. Two, the treatment by the staff of her bank — Indian Bank. “The officials of the bank have nothing but disdain for us,” she says, adding that she has to spend at least ₹30 to travel to the bank and half a day.

Considering these experiences, Thilakam says that she would prefer to get paid in cash. Failing which, she promotes the idea of the increasing the frequency of visits of the business correspondent (BC), hired by the bank to disburse money through hand-held machines. “Now, a BC comes to my village, once or twice a week. He distributes money only to three or four persons. Not many are able to get money. Instead, he should visit us daily and stay at least for one hour.”

State Rural Development department officials, looking after the implementation of the MGNREGS, say they have been providing such feedback to senior bank officials during their interactions. They point that such a problem is not the norm.

Indeed, there is another side to this story. The people of Konai, for example, do not have any complaint against their bank — Pallavan Bank, a regional rural bank. Also, the intensity of the problem of cash crunch has lessened, they feel.

Financial inclusion is only one aspect of the MGNREGS. Apart from addressing the issue of vulnerability of the rural poor, the scheme does many other things. For example, it provides space to Dalits and women in a big way. In this respect, Tamil Nadu has done better than many others. Compared to the national average of 21.67% of the Dalits to the total number of person days generated, the State’s figure has been consistently higher with about 28%. Likewise, the share of women has been over 85% against the all-India average of around 56%.

Tamil Nadu had shown the way to the rest of the country by accommodating persons with disabilities too in the scheme. Taking cues from this experience, the Central government, four years ago, included suitable provisions in the operational guidelines. Similarly, the State’s experiences in solid waste management have come in for appreciation from various quarters.

The flip side

But, the scheme is not without its flip side. The main criticism has been that the MGNREGS has caused a “huge labour shortage” to the farm sector. Tamil Nadu, being a major agricultural State, has suffered heavily, say the critics.

S.M. Vijayanand, formerly Secretary of the Union Ministry of Panchayat Raj and now Kerala Chief Secretary, dismisses the talk as “myth.” He points out that the scheme, on an average, has been able to provide employment to every rural family for barely 50 days in a year and one is free to take up agricultural work on all other days.

Rekha of the Malligaimedu village and Kotteeswari of Konai says that they do farm work for one week and take up the MGNREGS work the next week. They stress that there is “no clash” between agricultural operations and the scheme’s work. In fact, they say they have benefitted as thanks to the implementation of the Scheme, wages have gone up for farm labour too.

Prof Palanithurai says that in Tamil Nadu, labour budgeting is not done as effectively as in Kerala. “If we learn lessons from our neighbour, we can overcome the problem.” But, a senior official of the State government asserts that as far as the MGNREGS is concerned, the period from September to mid-January is regarded as a lean season, as it is during this period that the agricultural activity picks up momentum in the State, alluding to the raising of the long-term Samba crop.

During a visit to some blocks in Villupuram and Cuddalore districts last week, it becomes clear that Dalit beneficiaries are either absent or have a negligible presence in some of the work sites. The officials of the Rural Development department are quick to point out that the beneficiaries are being organised by way of clusters and two factors — habitations and proximity to the work sites — are taken into account while forming the clusters. This is why some clusters have only Dalits and some others do not have any. “We do not divide the beneficiaries on the basis of community,” clarify the officials.

Delay in wages

Another serious problem is the delay in the payment of wages, which has become a norm than an exception.

The women in the rural parts of Villupuram and Cuddalore complain that it takes more than 50 days or them to get the payment. Only for about 10% of the beneficiaries are the wages being paid within 15 days, whereas it was almost 100% in 2012-13.

“It is all due to the non-release of funds on time by the Centre [which bears 100% wage cost of unskilled manual labour],” say the officials here. This has been going on for the last one and a half years. As of now, the Tamil Nadu government’s claim of about ₹780 crore is pending with the Central authorities towards payment of wages.

The officials are also feeling pressure the more issue as the State government has decided to increase the number of days from 100 to 150, citing the prevailing drought conditions all over the State. Until the arrears are cleared substantially, it will be extremely difficult to motivate the beneficiaries to work for more days, says an official in Cuddalore.

Besides, not every beneficiary gets the notified wage of ₹203 per day as the payment is made on the basis of evaluation of output of the beneficiary. However, the current year’s average rate of ₹140.86 is, so far, the highest.

Irrespective of its merits and demerits, the MGNREGS is viewed as one of the effective options to provide livelihood security to large sections of the rural population at a time when the State is reeling under a severe drought.

P.M.Natarajan, water expert, says the scheme can be used to remove silt from about 39,200 irrigation tanks, a step that will help the State to get 30 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft), which is equivalent to nearly one-third of the capacity of the Mettur dam. Also, more and more farm ponds can be formed, especially in the Cauvery delta region, as there is virtually no provision to store water in a big way downstream of the dam. If one million ponds are created with each having the capacity of 1,500 cubic metre, a total of 55 tmc ft can be stored. In other words, this is equivalent to around 4,265 million litres a day (MLD), which is five times Chennai’s original water supply level of 830 MLD.

The Mohanambals and Poongavanams in Villupuram and Cuddalore districts, just like their counterparts in other districts, are also willing to set up farm ponds or remove silt from numerous tanks, or engage imaginatively in solid waste management, as they are conscious that the State needs their services badly.

What is critical, according to Dr. Natarajan, is that the authorities, both at the State and Centre, should turn the scheme to the fullest advantage of Tamil Nadu.


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