This time round

Making a point about MGNREGA 2.0: Mihir Shah. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Making a point about MGNREGA 2.0: Mihir Shah. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar  

Planning Commission member, Mihir Shah, speaks to The Hindu about a wide range of issues, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and his contribution to the 12 Five-Year Plan. Excerpts:

The MGNREGA has come under criticism from many quarters, including the CAG. Do you feel this criticism is warranted? How do you see the programme going forward?

It is only natural that a large programme like the MGNREGA, the most ambitious employment programme in human history, is subjected to fierce public scrutiny and criticism. I believe a lot of the critique is well founded and if you read the 12 Plan document, it takes a lot of it on board. But it goes one step further and shows a greater sense of balance. It acknowledges the massive achievements of the programme in terms of employment to the most marginalised sections, rise in real wages and poverty reduction. At the same time, it provides an exhaustive critique of the programme and suggests a way forward based on the recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee that led to the formulation of MGNREGA 2.0

What is so new about MGNREGA 2.0?

MGNREGA 2.0 is an attempt to overcome the weaknesses of the earlier programme and infuse it with a truly livelihood generation character through a focus on the creation of durable assets and improvement in rural productivity. The vision is of an initiative whose success breeds its own demise, with more and more people no longer requiring its support.

How can this happen?

Not many people know that a very high proportion of agricultural labour households in India actually own land. The percentage is around 50 in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 60 in Odisha and Uttar Pradesh and over 70 in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. And if we focus on adivasis, the proportion shoots up to as high as 76-87 per cent in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Millions of these small and marginal farmers are forced to work under MGNREGA because the productivity of their own farms is no longer enough to make ends meet. MGNREGA will become really powerful when it helps rebuild this decimated productivity of small farms.

How do you view the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) initiative of the government? Is it not like old wine in new bottles?

The day after the initiative was announced, I wrote to the government cautioning against launching headlong into DBT without requisite preparation. It is my considered view that the DBT is potentially a game-changer but there are certain pre-requisites that need to be in place for it to be a success. One is financial inclusion with each beneficiary to have a bank or post office account; two, each bank and PO in India to have Internet connectivity; three, each beneficiary to have an Aadhaar number; four, each bank/PO account to be seeded with the Aadhaar number.

All this will naturally take time. Managing the transition and ensuring that no one gets deprived of their benefits in the interim is essential, otherwise there can be a backlash. The government has realised this and has recalibrated its plans to make them more realistic without giving up on the ambition. And the great thing is that the DBT push has given unprecedented momentum to progress in this direction, each element of which is a public good in itself.

The 12 Plan is now underway. What would you say was your own most important contribution to its formulation?

Without doubt, the paradigm shift in water management. For too long have we been focusing all our attention on water resource development and extraction, whether it be through construction of large dams or drilling deeper and deeper for groundwater. There is no doubt that these were the pillars of the Green Revolution and contributed in a big way to food security. But the government is now convinced that we need to do much better in ensuring that the water stored in these dams actually reaches the people for whom it is meant and that groundwater is managed in a sustained manner. Both of these require much more participatory approaches to water management that make the process not only more efficient but also more sustainable and equitable.

What has been proposed in the 12 Plan to make this happen on the ground?

As far as surface irrigation is concerned, we are shifting focus from construction to irrigation management transfer. The 12 Plan believes that huge increases in irrigated land are possible by simply better utilising the huge irrigation capacities we have already created. We have set up a National Irrigation Management Fund that will facilitate and incentivise States to move towards a more participatory approach towards command area development. We have also launched a National Aquifer Management Programme that will, for the first time, map India’s groundwater resources in a manner that enables their participatory, sustainable and equitable management.

But can all of this happen within the legal regime that currently prevails on water?

You are right. We need to make a big change here. Currently, we follow a British common law, wherein whoever owns the land has unrestricted access to the water below that land. But as you know, groundwater is a common pool resource; it is a fugitive resource, whose boundaries are not that of the land above. So my extraction can potentially damage your access to this water. This is the tragedy we see all over the country. Powerful farmers or industrialists are extracting unlimited quantities of water and thereby depriving their neighbours of access to even lifeline water.

But how will this change?

We have drafted a National Water Framework Law. This law does not propose nationalisation of water. Indeed, it maintains the constitutional position on water. But it takes a crucial step forward. It proposes an overarching framework that States should sign up on, an agreed set of principles that embody the Public Trust Doctrine enunciated by the Supreme Court and deepen the commitment of the Constitution to the principle of subsidiarity. And we propose the Article 252 (1) route, whereby if two or more State Assemblies pass resolutions in support of Parliament enacting such a law, Parliament can also accordingly enact it.

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2020 2:24:11 AM |

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